Prisoners

“They’re all the worst Nazis,” I said.

“How do you know?” Dad asked.

I didn’t, of course.

“Well, that’s what I heard,” I lied. “That’s why they were brought here after the war is over and haven’t gone back yet.”

This was fifty years ago, in England, at the close of the Second World War. The hamlet of Brick Hill was less than thirty miles from London, but in those days still definitely rural. Its isolation had been broken first by the building of an army camp on the adjacent common land at the start of the war. The camp was now being used to house German Prisoners of War. My father and I were standing among the tall firs at the top of Fox Hill, overlooking the dozen or so cottages of Brick Hill beyond the road, and surrounded on this side by the clusters of huts of the camp. As we stood at the top of the hill watching them, the German prisoners wandered from hut to hut, or stood singly or in clusters smoking, and looked back at us.

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The Camp at Brick Hill. (Drawing by Peter Reed.)

“That one was a U-Boat commander,” I told Dad.

“How can you tell?”

“Look at his cap. And that’s a navy jacket.”

Who knows what he really was. Most of those we were to come to know subsequently were ordinary soldiers captured in North Africa. They had been taken to prison camps in America and were now, I gathered later, being staged back to Germany through England partly so that there would not be a sudden glut of demobilised men dumped on their shattered cities. The fact that the majority of them had homes in the Russian Zone had something to do with it too, I think.

On this, the day of the Germans’ arrival, we regarded them with suspicion and some enmity. Dad had fought them in one war and been bombed out by them in another. I had slept with the nightmares of a German invasion. Everyone had the grievance of a lost relative, a damaged roof, or just the rationing. The Buzz-Bombs weren’t that long ago. Brick Hill people were not overjoyed at the prospect of these new visitors.

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German POWs repair a barbed wire fence at a Prisoner of War camp, England on Christmas Eve, 1940. (Image courtesy IWM.)

Things got worse quickly. The P.o.W.s were set to work stringing the barbed wire around their own prison camp. For a while it looked as if the invasion had succeeded after all. They set boundaries far beyond the most distant huts, cutting off not just those paths that went through the camp and which the villagers had felt free to use throughout the war, but those that skirted it. For a couple of days, until complaints compelled the guards to order the wire moved, it was as if Brick Hill was the prison camp. The P.o.W.s, meantime, would sit in ranks of hundreds along the slope of Brown’s Hill and sing in German-American accents

“Oh give me land lots of land

Under starry skies above,

Don’t fence me in.”

And Lilli Marlene.

It was the rich voices of that chorus that began to soften the English reserve.

Indeed, it was those voices that, in the end, broke through all the reserve. And the voices of the children. Singing.

This is how it happened. Every Christmas, there would be a carol service in St. Saviour’s church featuring the children of the elementary school. The parents and the regular congregation from Brick Hill and the rest of Valley End would come, filling more pews than for any other service in the year. This year the Germans came.

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Valley End School. (Drawing by Peter Reed.)

I don’t know who arranged it. As I recall it, we children only knew we were to sing the first verse, be quiet for the second, and come back in for the last. We were at the front, but amidst the usual squirming round to make sure our mums and dads could see us, we were aware of pews of men in the back in the black and brown prisoner garbs that their tailors had dyed and sewn to look as much like civilian clothes as possible. There was a tension.

Christmas was Christmas, but Jerries were Jerries. At best it was different. There had never been anything like this. What would happen?

And then it did happen. We sang the first verse.

“Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright”

Sixty or seventy shyly thin children’s voices, self consciously raised before not just parents and families but these strange foreigners and former enemies.

And then the second verse, and the resonant baritones and over-arching tenors,

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,

Alles schlaft, einsam wacht”

I think we kids were too riveted by the sound of the almost-familiar words to the long-familiar tune to quite take in what was happening. I only know that when it came to the third verse, with us singing along with the Germans, we could sort of feel that something was happening. I felt a prickle in the hair at the back of my neck even before I stole a glance backwards and saw that our mothers were all crying, that our dads were sort of looking up or off to the side, and that most of the Germans were singing with tears on their cheeks.

That was the end of the suspicion, pretty much. The Germans went to work on farms and nurseries in the area, and soon some were pedalling off to work on their own bicycles rather than going in army trucks. Gaps appeared in the wire and use of the paths through the camp resumed: Germans came out as easily as civilians traversed. Families came to adopt prisoners, and to speak of “our Jerry or “Lovejoys’ Jerry” and Hans and Rudy crept into the conversation as comfortably as Bill or Fred.

The P.o.W.s formed their own soccer team and played prisoners teams from other camps. This at once drew the attention of the locals, who quickly came to appreciate the difference of the quick German style from their own.  Players were soon identified for their skills, and “that little centre forward” or “that Jerry goalie” developed their own followings. When they played Italian prisoners there were cries of, “Come on, the Jerries!” and soon the Germans were the local team, the home games anticipated and well attended.

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A football match on a winter’s day. (Image courtesy of IWM.)

Three Germans were regulars at our house: Rudy, Hans and Wolfgang. Hans would sometimes stay overnight at weekends. He slept in the twin bed next to mine, and we would talk in the dark about whether German or Russian composers were the best (at that age I was enchanted by Tchaikovsky) or  or what Pennsylvania, where he had been held prisoner, was like, or how he had been captured. Wolfie was a teacher. He never wrote after he went back to the Russian Zone. We understood why. Hans went back to the Russian Zone, too. He wrote, however, once telling us how his old father had been arrested for picking up coal that had fallen off a wagon. He always used a fictitious return address, and often addressed the envelope to “GREAT BRITAIN!!” He continued to send Christmas greetings to my sister for the rest of his life. Rudy was a doctor. Many years later his nephew and a student friend came to visit us.

Eventually they all left, most of them to Germany, a few to continue working at the same nurseries, married to English girls. Squatters moved into the empty camp, another new population which once again outnumbered the native one. Besides the memories, the Germans left me with two prized possessions. A hand-carved picture frame with “Sidling Hill, Pennsylvania” carved in its base. And Hans the tame crow, a wonderful companion who taught me forever the rewards to be found in a friendship with another species.

Once before the war, when the local Valley End football team had numbered a player or two from the neighbouring villages of Chobham or Windlesham, a wag observed, “Valley End? It looks more like the League of Bloody Nations.” The war had brought the camp, and with it the unfamiliar accents of soldiers from Yorkshire or Northumberland, the Canadians, and finally the Germans from America. Our lives would never be so isolated again. We had shared unexpected common bonds with strangers, even with those we had feared.

 

 

By Peter  Reed.

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With many thanks to Peter Reed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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