Below is Part 2 of Mel Baker's moving account of being a Prisoner of War from 1941-45. Click here to read Part 1 and here to download the full account including footnotes and a bibliography. The photograph above shows Mel Baker and Lex Macrae in the back row and Freddie Webster, Len, Lofty Shepherd, George Bennet and Andy Andreason in the front.
There was always talk about escaping – but where to? Very remote chance of Switzerland. Several escapees made it across the Swiss border but got caught coming back, not realising that they had been into Switzerland and come out again. The alternative was Turkey, which meant a trek through the full length of Yugoslavia and northern Greece to the Dardanelles, about a two-thousand mile hike with no knowledge of the language or terrain. However, after I had fixed the window, we could have had a full night’s start.
Window story: The windows had cross bars riveted together built into the wooden frames. I had to work for the blacksmith as a payment for work he had done for the Windischbauer, such as shoeing horses and fixing wagons. I “borrowed” a hammer, cold chisel and hacksaw blade from the blacksmith’s shop, knowing I was going to work there and could return them the next morning. I sawed through the bottom of the centre upright bar, used the cold chisel and hammer to break the rivets, and then was able to loosen and pull it out from the bottom and slide it out from the top. Using a knife, I worked around the bar still in the wood at the bottom of the window frame and managed to remove it, then half-filled the hole from which it had been removed and was able to replace the bar. The rivet holes were all packed tight with chewing gum (can’t remember where we got it) to match the other rivets. To drown the noise of hammering out the rivets, I got everybody to sing as loudly as they could so that the guard in his room could not hear the banging. The guard had his own partitioned-off section of the room next to the wash area. From then on it was a very easy job to remove the bar creating a hole big enough to go in and out as we wished. I made full use of it, as on Saturday evening, when all was quiet and the guard snoring, I went out to visit my girlfriend. No meeting up in the cold snow in that part of the world, just knocked on her bedroom window and got the benefit of a nice warm bed with lovely sheets and blankets and proper mattress to “sleep” on. Far better than our straw-filled hessian. (I was the only one who made regular use of it though everybody who had a girlfriend could have done the same.)
Before fixing the window, we used to sit up half of Saturday night playing bridge. We had a carbide lamp which gave a brilliant light. I am surprised that we were allowed this lamp, as carbide is a powerful explosive. On Sundays we went to our farms for lunch. After lunch I usually walked up to Andy’s workplace and wandered about, ragged a couple of Ukrainian girls and strolled back to camp late afternoon.
Andy didn’t go out on Saturday evenings. He met his girlfriend who worked in the shop on their respective ways home. She had a seven-month baby girl (fully developed). Her soldier came home when she was two months pregnant. All the eligible men were in the army. So who was left? Ten prisoners of war. A great chance was taken by the local girls because if they were caught fraternising with the enemy, they were taken away, had their heads shaved and paraded publicly. If caught, we would be taken back to camp for 30 days solitary confinement. There were plenty of slave workers – Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, but they were not as interesting as the local frauleins.
After I had chopped down some chestnut trees in the area they had to be paid for by the Windischbauer. I was given a bicycle, an envelope with a certain amount of marks in it and I was told by the Windischbauer to pay the owner of the trees who lived about a two hours walk from Wernersdorf (about 10 kms) On my way, I cycled past our guard who was walking down the road, towards Wernersdorf, with a German officer or possibly a Non-Commissioned Officer. When I got there the man who had to be paid was not at home and his wife refused to take the money. So I sat there the whole day waiting for the man to come back. By the time I got back to Wernersdorf the family thought I “had gone to the devil”, that is, that I had escaped. The irony was that I could speak fluent German by that stage and had the wherewithal to escape: I had money, a bicycle and I was dressed in shorts and a shirt. The guard recognised me when I rode past him but didn’t even stop me to ask me where I was going. I could have kept on riding but there was no point in carrying on because a serious escape would have required a lot preparation such as acquiring maps and so on. I didn’t want to escape for the sake of escaping because the conditions in Wernersdorf were far better than any other working party I could have been on.
While I was sitting in the kitchen waiting to pay the man, his daughter and a land girl came into the room and I was surprised to see they were wearing shorts and tops. This was quite different from the traditional working clothes worn by the women in the region. The land girl was quite a stunner and I wouldn’t have minded spending a night with her in the barn. In fact, the very barn on this farm was later burnt down and I was told that the land girl was responsible for it.
In another incident, towards the end of 1944, a Yugoslavian came to speak to the Windischbauer, possibly to trade something. He told us (the POWs) that if he’d known we were there two weeks earlier he could have organised to get us out through Yugoslavia and into Italy. However, the escape route that they had been using had been discovered by the Germans and a vital bridge was now being guarded, so they were no longer able to use that route.
The farmers or bauers were known by the names of their farms. Windischbauer’s farm was called Windisch (the previous owner was a Wend from Slovenia). The farmer’s family name was Knappitsch. He was a giant of a man with hands like hams. In the days of his youth, according to stories told about him, he was extremely strong. One day when he and his friends were carting a 300 litre barrel of cider, the wagon broke down. The wheel had come off. The others went to get a pole to lift the wagon to fix the wheel. When they came back the barrel was on the ground. They asked him how it had got there. He told them he had lifted it off. They didn’t believe him, so he put it back on again and then took it off. There were many other tales about his strength. He had gone to seed when I was there and didn’t do much physical work. When something heavy was to be lifted he made me do it, saying, “You are stronger than me.” Ha, ha! In fact, he had more strength in one finger than I had in my entire hand. When we were hoeing the mealies and potatoes he always came and did the first row at a fast rate to set the pace, expected us to continue at that pace for the rest of the day, and then disappeared. Of course, as soon as he went, the pace slackened.
The frau made her own sauerkraut - shredded cabbage was put in a wooden tub, compressed by a lid weighed down with a 50 kg bell weight with a lifting ring on top. I battled to lift it with my middle finger, but Windischbauer said he always lifted it with his little finger. Finger-wrestling was actually a common pastime in the area. Even the kids started finger-wrestling early and developed strong hands and fingers. When it came to arm-wrestling then none of them could beat me.
Windischbauer was a member of the Nazi party, but he didn’t act like one. He used his membership to keep in with the regime, which helped him to get away with various things. Farmers were allowed to slaughter two pigs a year for their own use. Sick pigs only counted as half a pig. And strangely, all Windischbauer’s pigs were “sick”. So he got away with four pigs a year. The meat inspector had to authorise all pigs slaughtered and Windischbauer always brought out the schnapps, by the time the inspector had to sign the authority he was very much under the weather. A small cow was in the stable for a short while and suddenly disappeared. After which a pile of canned meat suddenly appeared – highly illegal.
The youngest son Paul, a private in the SS, came home on leave. He and his brother Hans were having a discussion about politics. Hans said something against the regime and Paul threatened him saying, “You may be my brother, but if you speak like that again, I will report you.” So much indoctrination, and all this in front of me.
The community worked hard and had very little time for relaxation and recreation. The only thing the younger ones seemed to do was go and knock on the girlfriend’s window and go to bed and do what comes naturally. Most women were pregnant before they got married. The first son, Roman’s wife was pregnant with their fourth son before they married.
One had to be careful about discussing politics with the locals. The ardent Nazis would make sure you were reported. In 1944 Eric spoke to his farmer about Hitler’s regime and how bad it was. The farmer related some of this to a neighbour, who promptly reported it to the authorities. The consequence of this was that Eric was taken away from Wernersdorf to the Stalag, put in solitary confinement and was not allowed to come back to the farm job. He was very bitter about this and threatened that when the war was over he would get the man who reported him. At the end of the war he actually acquired a gun and was prepared to go back and carry out his threat, but he was restrained and talked out of it.
The original ten at one time was down to six. Eric was gone. Bert had a carbuncle on the back of his neck and was taken to the Stalag to have it removed and was fortunate enough to be brought back to us. Bob and Dick (who were on top of the mountain) were taken back to the Stalag in early 1944 for medical treatment, but they did not return. They were replaced by two newcomers, who only stayed for about a week and decided this was not for them. So they just took off, were soon recaptured and taken back to the Stalag for their fortnight’s solitary confinement. They were not interested in hard work and preferred to get back to the boredom of the main camp. They had no intention of escaping to get home. When we left Wernersdorf there were seven of the originals and we had three newcomers in our midst who were with us until we left Wernersdorf in December 1944.
One replacement was a sergeant in the paratroopers (very tough crowd). He was trained to kill. He loved sparring with me, open handed, of course. He was the quickest guy I ever sparred with and I never saw his hand coming to slap me on the cheek. All I could do was use my superior weight and crowd him. Another newie called Stevens, also a Scot, annoyed the sergeant one day, and wouldn’t stop pestering him, so he gave him one punch. The result – damaged nose and two black eyes. Of course the guard was told that he was chopping wood and one piece flew up and hit him in the face. Stevens came back to camp one evening, roaring drunk. His bauer had been distilling schnapps and Stevens had done far too much sampling. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hold his liquor and was picking fights with everyone. He also hit the door with his fist and finished up with a damaged hand. Punching him back didn’t deter him, so finally when he pushed Andy over onto his back on the bed and was on top of him, I gave him a rabbit punch, which put him out. I was worried that I might have killed him because it took ages before he woke up from it. About 2 a.m. he was awake talking much better. I said, “Don’t start again.” His reply was, “Thanks for hitting me, and I mean it. You should have done it sooner.” He realised what he had done and what a jerk he had been.
George, the third replacement, was a great teller of far-fetched stories. He was talking about finding wild strawberries and telling the locals that in England they grew as big as his fist. When we laughed at him, he said, “I’ve seen them bigger.” Of course, after that if anyone came up with a tall story the call was “strawberries”.
None of the houses had bathrooms, and toilets were outside next to the pigsties. When we asked the locals about bathing they said, “In summer we are too busy and in winter it’s too cold.”
Our facilities were a shared toilet with the bauers’ families, and we had wooden tubs in our washing area for daily use. During the summer months, at the end of the day we went to the river with our soap, had a good wash and swim. In the winter months, freezing weather was not conducive to visiting the river. It was frozen over, so we had to make do with a basin wash - which was “dipping your fingers and wiping your eyes”. We had to break the ice in the basins to get our water. On a Sunday we were given the use of a boiler on the farm where we slept. We filled it with water, it got nice and hot and we had a lovely hot water basin bath.
Not all the locals were Nazis at heart. One old man spoke to me about the pre- Hitler days and was still a monarchist. He never said “Heil Hitler” except under duress, but still said “Heil Frans Josef”. Certain things had improved for the locals after the Germans took over. Roads were better, more jobs for non-farmers. Windishbauer said he wasn’t unhappy with the new regime due to the improvements in their living standards. Obviously, he was not an ardent Nazi – he took what he could by being a member of the party.
Windischbauer had his own saw mill, which was water-driven. The river was dammed up and water came through a race to turn the water wheel by pushing against the paddles. A flour mill was also connected to this and sometimes he would mill some wheat (illegally) into fine cake flour and sometimes white wheat bread was baked, and even raisin bread when I traded my raisins for eggs for Sunday morning breakfast. Officially the mill was for grinding yellow mealies for their sterz (crumbly porridge).
There also was a saw mill which was owned by the shopkeeper. It was power driven by steam and fuelled by sawdust and wood offcuts. The shop-owner also had a small car, the only one in the village, and he had a truck which was powered by gas.
Sunday mornings we cooked a huge breakfast – purloined potatoes for chips, meat loaf cooked like sausages, two fried eggs, toast with butter and jam, coffee or tea (depending on what was in the latest parcel). After this we had to go to the farm for our Sunday meal. On days when I got a reasonable amount of meat (usually rabbit goulash, potatoes, etc) on top of the breakfast it was quite an effort to do justice to it.
In the evenings I often took my evening bread home with me and had it together with all the goodies from our parcels.
Liesl, aged 60 plus, also lived on the farm. She milked the cows, fed the pigs and also did light work in the fields. She was rather deaf and her eyesight was not too great. One day during midday meal she picked up a spoonful of food on which a fly had settled and didn’t hear me telling her – so down went food, fly and all. Nothing was ever wasted by the locals. All scraps, peelings and rinsing water from the cooking pot went to the pig swill.
The guards in the stalags loved chasing us out of the buildings with a shout of, “Raus” (out), the most hated word. They lined us up every day to be counted and left us standing, sometimes for hours depending on the mood of the commandant. On working parties the guards left us mostly alone in the charge of the contractor on the building site or wherever.
On one of our first jobs before we went to Wernersdorf, we were digging a trench. An SS soldier came up to speak to us. He could speak Dutch, so spoke to me for a long time, fishing for information. While he was there our guard said nothing to make me work. When the SS man left, the guard shouted at me for not working, and said something I couldn’t understand, I said, “Niks verstehen.” One youngster grabbed his bayoneted rifle and threatened me with it. If the others had not interfered I’m sure he would have stuck his bayonet into me. Not a pleasant outing.
The guard who took us to Wernersdorf was not too bad. He at least managed to beg a loaf of bread for us on our arrival in Wernersdorf. He saw us to our billets and made sure we got to the job on the next morning. It was the responsibility of the bauers to get us to our work places, but after two days we knew the way and had to get there on our own. The guard seemed quite happy with this arrangement. All he had to do was get us out of bed so we were on our way by 6 o’clock in the morning.
The next guard in Wernersdorf was with us for about 6 months. He was middle-aged, easy-going, didn’t interfere with us and was only worried about waking us up in the morning and locking us up at night.
Number three was a young soldier from Sudetenland who spoke an unusual dialect. He came to the farm kitchen one morning to borrow a rucksack to go to Wies to collect our mail. The locals couldn’t understand what he was saying and asked me what he wanted! He was only with us for a couple of months.
The next one was rather elderly, 60 plus by the way he moved and spoke, very mild and no problem. We soon learnt how to handle him. When I was moved from Trofaiach to Stalag 18A I was on a passenger coach. The train stopped at a siding. Next to us was an open railway truck packed with German soldiers standing like sardines. I recognised our ancient guard among them, and shouted his name, “Recher”, as we pulled off. He heard me and looked up in surprise.
The last guard in Wernersdorf was the worst of the lot. For some reason he didn’t like Andy or me. He would come into our room at five in the morning shouting, “Baker, Andreasen, raus!” and make us get out of bed and get fully dressed, and then he walked away. The rest of our gang were left to get up when they felt like it as long as they were ready to leave at 6.00 for work. He was the one who got bombed out of his mind with an overdose of schnapps. We had great joy when the sergeant came on the day we were to leave Wernersdorf. At 10.00 we were supposed to be at Wies station to catch the train to Trofaiach, but we were still in Wernersdof at 11.00. The sergeant gave him hell. He could only complain to the sergeant that we were all drunk and he couldn’t handle us. The sergeant was a very sensible guy. He spoke to us quietly and appealed to us to get moving on our way to the station to catch a later train.
Trofaiach guards were not too bad. I think they were aware of the war situation at that stage, realising the end was approaching and didn’t do much to annoy us. They only did what was absolutely necessary. I was in the kitchen one day to fetch our rations where our so-called meal was prepared. I was talking to a woman who was working in the kitchen when one of the guards came in and started speaking to me in pidgin German. The lady told him he needn’t speak to me like that as I could understand German perfectly.
The postcard that I sent from Marburg arrived three months after we were sunk. The day before it arrived my parents received a telegram saying that I was a prisoner of war. They had a long wait for the first news of me. It took about another two months before I got my first letter from home. What a great day that was. After that, mail came through on a fairly regular basis. I also received a couple of parcels from home including shirts, socks, shoes underpants and pyjamas. Before we received our new uniforms, Eric also received pyjamas from home. He never took them off in the morning during the winter months (except for washing) but wore them as underclothes to help keep him warm.
Letters from home meant a lot to POWs. When we heard about the fall of Tobruk, I was worried about my brother Frank, who was in the army in Egypt. He was slightly wounded in the desert and didn’t go to Tobruk. He was sent back home to hospital. Lex received a letter from his girlfriend in New Zealand, who said that if he wanted to he could be released from their understanding. The poor chap went into a bit of a decline after this and became quite morose and not very communicative. It took a long time for him to reconcile himself to it. (After the war he married his Marje – they met up again in Dunedin). The parcels I received from home were wrapped in a piece of calico, neatly sewn up. This cloth served a very good purpose as “bathing trunks”. I tied them up like a nappy whenever we went for our evening dip in the river after work in the summer. I also received a long-sleeved woollen jersey which got somewhat worn out. I unravelled it and got Andy’s girlfriend to knit me a pair of swimming trunks. What a pleasure after the nappy.
We managed to get the local Wernersdorf photographer to take some photos of us which we were able to send home. They were paid for with the useless money we were paid by the farmers. It was in the form of a voucher that could be used at the shop. Our pay was one mark a day, equal to ten pence (pre-war rates) - for a fourteen-hour day.