Diaries Dog tag

The Lost Six Years 1939-1945

Derek Hunnisett

The Farm at Lebanau

We were raked out at 5:30 am on the first day there and were put to weeding potatoes and carrots. There were miles of them in huge fields that were bigger than those at home; it was more like a ranch. We had an hour for dinner at noon and then went haymaking in the afternoon until 7:30 pm. A German civilian hit Bill Saxby in the face with a rake because he wasn’t doing it right for him. The German civilians were !******! and it looked like we were going to be in for a good time!

The next day was a Sunday and we didn’t have to work. We went for a swim in the river that was nearby. It was only about two feet deep but after all this time without having a really good wash it was grand (I bet it upset the lice though). We didn’t have any swimwear but that didn’t matter as we thoroughly enjoyed it. We were locked in from 2:00 pm on Sundays until 5:00 pm and again at 7:30 pm but in between we were allowed to wander around the farmyard. There were only two guards in charge of us on this farm.

One of us had to do the cooking, keep the billet clean and collect the rations. Vic Osbourne said he would do it, if we agreed, and that was alright by us. He said that he had done cooking before and, anyway it didn’t need a good cook to dish out the stews we had.

After that not much changed to vary our lives. The routine was work from 6:00 am until 8:00 pm with an hour for dinner. The work mostly consisted of haymaking, hoeing potatoes and sugar beet and digging. It was hard work - I don’t think I have worked so hard in my life – and the German civilians and guards kept us at it all the time with shouts and blows. It was more like slavery. By the end of the first week I ached all over and couldn’t close my hands that were so sore and just one mass of blisters.

On the Sunday at the end of the week, the farm boss gave us a cupful of beer and said he wanted more work from us! I don’t know what he expected but we couldn’t have worked harder if we had wanted to. We went for another swim in the morning which helped to soothe our aches and pains a bit. The first week had been the hardest work we had done since we had been out there and the lack of fitness made it so much worse.

We were issued with a Red Cross parcel each and we also had a consignment that had arrived from the Stalag for one week, for each man, per month. We had half a loaf of bread per day with margarine and either jam, sausage or cheese. The stews were fairly thick, most days. With the Red Cross parcels we were doing better for food than we had for the past year but we needed it with the work being a lot harder than we had done before

Although the guards treated us badly out in the fields, when they were back on the farm, or on their own, they were quite decent. I think they were scared to be anything else when the civilians were about. I found that during all the time we were out there, they were scared of each other.

On the 7th of July we were haymaking, then later on, bringing the hay in on wagons, pulled by oxen, to be stacked in the barn lofts. It was unloaded from the wagons on to a revolving chute and travelled through a trapdoor in the barn. Three of us had to fork it away and stack it. It wasn’t too bad when the barn was empty but when it was getting near the top it was hell. It was very hot up there and there were not enough men to shift it fast enough, so it kept piling up at the entrance and falling back to the ground outside. In the end they sent up three Polish girls to help us. In between wagon loads there was about three quarters of an hour before the next one arrived, so we got stuck in and shifted as quickly as we could so that we could have a break. So we were up there with three girls amongst the hay and without any guards – it was great!  We had the girls with us all the time after that, even when we had to move to another barn. Our mates wanted to change places with us, but we were quite happy with the arrangement as it was! It was very funny trying to talk to them but we very soon made ourselves understood and learned quite a few words of Polish.

During the first week when I got back to the farmhouse I was so tired, and ached so much, I could hardly climb into my bunk (I had the top one again.) and in the nights I dreamt that I was fighting with the hay, trying to get out of the barn. It was murder for the first month and then, I suppose, we got a bit tougher and it didn’t seem to be quite so hard.

On the 21st of July we finished haymaking and said cheerio to the girls, worse luck! We then started loading dung into the wagons and spreading it over the fields. I fell off a wagon and hurt my back. It was agony and I could hardly lift my arms over my head, but I was made to carry on working.

On Sunday the 27th the door wasn’t locked and the guards were not about, so five of us went into the sheep stalls with catapults that we had made. Three stationed themselves outside to keep watch while Jack Baker and I went in shooting pigeons. We got seven between us before we had to come out, because the sheep were making too much noise. We then had to dash back to the billet as the guard was coming. The first one I shot wasn’t dead so I wrung its neck. I must have done it too hard because I ended up with a bird in one hand and its head in the other. They went down very well cooked in the stew.

We started stooking the wheat in the fields and it proved to be another exhausting job. First we tied the wheat into bundles and then stooked them in rows across the fields, which seemed endless. My feet were raw from wearing the clogs and the work in the fields was from sunrise until sunset. It was a long day and I suppose not being in peak condition made it so much worse. We didn’t get much time to ourselves, apart from Sundays and, even then they got us out on several occasions if they were behind or wanted something finished.

On the 20th of August, while forking bundles of wheat on to a threshing machine, I strained my back again. I could hardly move and was off sick with it until the 27th. They had to let me stay off this time; they tried to get me out but it was no good as I couldn’t lift anything, let alone work.

We got all the harvest in by the 4th of September and on the 5th we loaded five hundred sacks of corn onto the wagons, took them to the station and loaded them onto a railway truck. Sacks of wheat are not very light either. After we had finished we were having a smoke when one wagon started rolling towards us. Everybody jumped out of the way but I was too late and got knocked into a ditch, much to everybody’s amusement. When we arrived back at the farm we found a sack of boots had come from the Stalag. None of them were new but, after sorting them out, I managed to get a pair that was size 9. I take a size 7 but they were boots and not in bad condition. I could get rid of the clogs now and hoped that perhaps the condition of my feet would improve. From then until the 4th of October we had various jobs including threshing, dung loading, digging potatoes and digging ditches. We still nearly always had a food parcel each week and I had quite a few letters from home and a clothing parcel.

On the 4th of October we started potato picking. We picked up the potatoes on the fields that had been dug up by the machines pulled by the oxen, put them into baskets and carried them to a wagon. It doesn’t sound very hard but doing it from early morning until night while trudging over uneven ground with baskets, that seemed to get heavier and heavier, it was no joke. By the end of the day my back felt like it was breaking.

On the 17th we started cutting sugar beet and that was another back breaker. One man went ahead between two rows pulling them out with the help of a small fork. Another followed behind cutting the leaves from the beet with a large knife and putting them into small piles. We were bent over all day long and that went on until the 30th. If we stood up for a breather the guards started shouting “Los Los!” and would unsling their rifles, sometimes putting a bullet up the spout and sometimes firing if you didn’t move quick enough for them.

After that there was always something to do on the farm, whether it was making clamps for potatoes, turnips and swedes, making dung heaps or threshing etc. One morning when we went out they kept us hanging about while there was a commotion going on in one barn. We eventually moved off, but not before learning that the civilians had hung a Pole in there. What for, I don’t know, but there was never anything said about it later. They were literally getting away with murder.

On the 16th of December, three of us were picked out, taken to a tool shed and given an axe, wooden wedges and one crosscut saw. We then walked for about three quarters of an hour into the wood with three civilians. It was snowing heavily and was bitterly cold. One civilian, who we called Odd Socks (because when we first arrived he was wearing odd socks), told me to go with him, and we started to fell trees, first making a notch with an axe and then felling it with the crosscut saw. I started off with greatcoat, balaclava, gloves, pullover etc. but I was soon down to just a singlet and trousers. Although it was cold and snowing, I was still sweating like a pig. Odd Socks didn’t stop once for a breather but my arms felt ready to drop off. After felling two or three trees we would then trim all the branches off, saw the trunks up into short lengths and stack them into piles. That lasted until Christmas Eve. By that time I was getting to be something of a lumberjack and quite expert at swinging an axe. However I didn’t enjoy it one bit; I hated these civilians and they hated us. They showed it all the time. Odd Socks was one of the worst of the lot (he was the one who hit Bill with the rake on the first day). I had one set to with him while we were felling a tree that was bigger than usual. I just couldn’t keep going with the saw, so I stopped and stood up for a minute. He started to rant and rave at me and hit me in the face with his fist. The guard was nearby and I heard his rifle click; I couldn’t do a thing about it. Not one of us liked that job and we were glad when it was over. The only good thing was that we did get a bit of extra rations while we were on it. One day, while we were walking back, we came upon a dead deer. It was still warm and the guard let us carry it back to the farm. Vic cooked it and, although it was a bit tough, we thought it made a nice change.

We had a very quiet Christmas and did nothing in particular apart from rest. I read most of the time as we had received some books from the Red Cross, but all of us spent a lot of time just laying there, dreaming of home.

Text © Copyright Derek Hunnisett 1983
The moral right of Derek Hunnisett to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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