Diaries Dog tag

The Lost Six Years 1939-1945

Derek Hunnisett

Finckenstein 1944

January 1st 1944. We organised a high tea in the other room and the boys were waited on by the “women”, with a dance and games in the evening, finishing at midnight. For the two days I wore the dress that I had made. Several others had made dresses as well but I was the only one with the stockings. It was a good laugh and there were a lot of funny remarks flying around. Although we had a good time over Christmas, we kept wondering, how much longer? Unless anyone has experienced it, nobody can ever imagine what it is like to be locked up and watched over all the time, never knowing when it will end and never knowing what the guards will do next. The most frequent expression was “Roll on that bloody boat!”

All January we were threshing and taking straw to the civilians cottages. I managed to give Lena her stockings back when I was unloading straw at her cottage and I also gave her an extra bar of soap. She was very pleased with that as they couldn’t get much soap and what they did get was a devil to get any lather with, so a bar of English soap is a luxury to them. Her mother brought out a large bacon sandwich and coffee. I didn’t see her father and I didn’t think to ask where he was. I suppose he was in the Army. All the younger men were away and only the older ones were left in the village.

It was during this time that I went sick. I felt rotten and had a terrible cough and had four days off before I went back to work. It wasn’t very much of a rest if you went sick. If you could walk you had to do small jobs around the billet. Only the ones who were really bad and couldn’t get out of their bunk would get a rest.

On the 1st of February I was selected to go working in the forest with nine of the other P.O.W.s again. I had Snuffy with me once more. I couldn’t figure out why he always picked on me.  The other civilians didn’t work quite as hard as he did and although he worked hard, I seemed to get along with him; also he was in charge of the working party. It could be a lot worse and I liked working in the forest where there was more freedom and food. It was bitterly cold again and snowing heavily but it wasn’t long before we were sweating like mad. Snuffy, being in charge, always seemed to pick the biggest trees. On the 21st he picked the biggest yet. It was huge and even he had to take a lot of rests. During one rest he offered me a pinch of snuff and, like a fool, I accepted. Well it nearly blew my head off and I couldn’t stop sneezing. He burst out laughing and said “Es war sehr nett ja nayr?” (It was lovely yes, more?). I replied “Nein, nein danke, woraus ist es gemacht, upful?” (No, no thank you, what’s it made of garbage?). He said “Nien es gutt!” (No it’s good.) That was the last time I had any of that, although he offered it, with a grin, on several occasions. How he could take such a pile of it I don’t know. Anyway it took all day to get that tree down, but what a sight when it did fall. There was a terrific crack followed by more crashing as it brought down other, smaller trees, in its path. There was snow flying in all directions and then a deathly silence. It was a big job trimming it and cutting it into lengths and took several days. It was very hard work but I preferred it to the farm as there were no guards and the civilians were always in a better mood. When we were sitting around the bonfire, waiting until it was time to go back, they would sometimes start singing and it sounded so nice and peaceful and I would think “why can’t it always be like this.” We worked in the forest until the 4th of March and I was sorry that it had to end and have to go back to the farm.

On Sunday the 6th of March Albert and Joe made a break for freedom. They went out through a hole they made in the wall, behind their bunk, and into the empty hay barn at the back of the brewery. They then bricked it up and cleared away all traces of it, as did the others back in the room. They made dummies to look as if the men were sleeping in their bunks. The guards took roll call with each man standing by his bunk or in it, and they didn’t find out that the two were missing until the Monday morning. By then they were well away and were well stocked with food and clothing.

We then went carting the wood in from the forest, that we had cut the year before, and took it to the civilian’s cottages. It was heavy work humping the logs on to the sleighs and then unloading them. Once or twice the sleighs overturned on the tracks through the forest, throwing us all off into the snow. This meant loading them all over again. They were wet through and so were we.

Sunday the 27th of March. This was the worst day I had. I came in, in the evening, after taking sacks of corn to Lebunbuck and found that the mail had come. There was a letter for me from home. I was sitting down to my tea, which Phil had got ready, before I opened it. It was from my Father, saying that Mum had passed away on the 19th of February. I just left my tea and climbed on my bunk. Phil saw that something was up and came over. I tried to tell him, but couldn’t say a word, so I gave him the letter to read. Everyone was sympathetic but I just wanted to be alone. God, it was the worst news anyone could have got out there. I could picture her there, as I often did, standing at the bus station waving goodbye and realising that I would never see her again. It must have been a very hard letter for my Father to have sent. I went carting wood the next day but had to pack it up, I felt so rotten. One of the chaps told the guard what had happened and he was sympathetic too and told me to finish for the day when we got back to the farm with the load. Looking back in my diary, on the 19th I had been working in the forest and I distinctly remember, one day in particular, that I kept thinking of her more than usual. I would very much like to think that it was on that day but I honestly don’t know.

Of course I wasn’t the only one to get bad news out there. A lot did, but it’s always worse when it happens to you and our morale would plummet. I remember one chap though who was a bit simple. (He wasn’t always like that but he had cracked up, as so many did.) He was a surveyor in civvie street and had a wife and plenty of money. He had a letter saying that his wife had had a baby boy. He was as pleased as punch to think he had a son. He had been out there for four years; I don’t know how he thought he had anything to do with it – by letter perhaps! – but that brought him pleasure not sorrow.

April 9th. Easter Sunday. We had tea altogether in the other room and had a dance in the evening. We heard bombing in the distance. We didn’t know where exactly but it raised our spirits. During the night of the 10th/11th Ralph and Taffy got off their mark (escaped) using the same route as Albert and Joe.

We had a Canadian Red Cross parcel between two. They were even better than the English ones and included a big tin of Klim milk and biscuits that were about four inches across and half an inch thick. They were lovely for making cakes and when they were soaked they swelled up and were fine fried.

We had a job unloading sacks of corn in Reisenburg and taking them up three flights of stairs. My legs were like rubber by the time I got to the top and I had to stop a lot of times. We managed to pinch some wheat and get it back though.

On the 27th Hackett got off his mark and on the 7th of May, Eddie and Vic went, all through the hole in the wall in the other room.

We were now planting potatoes. We were required to carry a sack of them on our shoulders and supply the women with them. The women had baskets and we would tip a few into them, which they would plant in rows. When their baskets were empty they would shout for us and we would have to trudge over to fill up again. With the German women, we didn’t like, we would over fill their baskets so they had to carry them themselves, and then move on quickly to someone else. They didn’t like that one bit and would swear at us like hell. We would give them a big smile and say “Danke schon mein liebe!” (Thank you very much my love!), which made them worse. It was quite exhausting as we were wandering backwards and forwards all day over uneven ground with sacks on our backs.

On the 17th of May Kit and Jimmy got off their mark. On the 18th I had another tooth out, again with no cocaine. On the 23rd Coley and Boyle went during the night. We were spraying fertilizer that day and the Baron had just got married. He brought his young bride out with him in a pony and trap. He was in a terrible mood and, I suppose he had come to show off in front of her. He stood up and started to bellow at us and said that if any more escaped, he would see that we were put on bread and water for a month and work through the day without a break. With that we all stood up facing him and our camp leader led us in giving him three good rousing cheers. He went as red as a beetroot, started spluttering and then drove off at a furious pace. (I wondered what his bride thought.) We never heard any more of his threats.

We had a visit from the German S.S. They were a mean looking lot! They questioned us about how the men were escaping but all we would say was “Ich verstehan nicht”. (I don’t understand.) They hunted all around the building, tapping walls and turning everything upside down, but they didn’t find anything. They shouted and threatened but, much to our surprise, didn’t beat anyone up.

Whit. Monday. The 29th of May. Eight men went off during the night and Phil was among them. (I wondered what the Baron would say now.) On the 30th and 31st the place was crawling with officers, all poking around. One officer was a bit obvious when he got some of us on our own and started speaking in English. He told us that he had lived in England for most of his life, that he liked the English and wanted to help us etc. etc. Eventually he got round to asking us how the men had got away and that he would keep it to himself, as he admired us. All this was done, not straight out but in a very roundabout way. One of the boys told him that it was easy. The Germans gave us so little food that it was easy to slip between the bars in the window as we were so thin. It was impossible to keep a straight face and he stormed off shouting “Dummkopf Englander schweinen!” (Stupid English pigs.”). So much for his admiration and wanting to help us! They never did find out how they got away. That was the last lot to go though, as we heard that so many were escaping at that time (not only from our camp) that the Germans were treating them so badly when they were caught, sometimes shooting them. As a result our leader said that nobody else was to go. It happened that I and four others were down to go the next weekend. We had got all our kit ready to take and had saved up and swapped fags for chocolate, raisins, biscuits etc. that  we could carry comfortably, but now, that was all off.

All the men escaping didn’t go expecting to get back home, although that was everyone’s dream. We were so near the Russian border, which would be heavily garrisoned and the other way wasn’t much better unless you could speak fluent German and had civilian clothes and papers. We just didn’t have the facilities to make or forge these. The real reason was that everyone was getting so browned off. They wanted a change to the monotony and a little freedom, even if only for a short while. Soon after the men came drifting back. They hadn’t got very far and had been treated very roughly, so it was right what we had heard. Some were in a bad way even after lengthy stays in civilian prisons.

June. We were haymaking and loading turnips again. When I was loading hay, I was with Lena again. I think it was mutual that we tried to get together, as she would come over to the wagon that I was allotted to. I seemed to get on well with her but I wouldn’t have liked to work with some of the other German girls. (Although most of them were alright.) When we knew we would be together for several days she would bring me eggs and we would trade for chocolate and soap. It was an arrangement that worked well for us both. I wasn’t the only one to work with a girl, several others did and they got on just as well.

postcard of Schloss Finckenstein
Postcard of Schloss Finckenstein

In July I had a spell in the garden again. It was very hot with most days over 100°F and the hottest at 115°F.  I only had a week there, unfortunately. On one of the days I had to go into the Schloss itself. It was only into one of the back rooms where I had to take some onions. No one was with me so I had a poke around but all I found was a postcard of the Schloss.  Others had gone further and they said it was a really lovely place. It would have been nice to have had a good look around.

I then went on binding and stooking wheat and had a row with the guards who said we weren’t working hard enough. We didn’t speed up and nothing came of it. We heard a rumour that the Russians were pushing the Germans back and that we had made a landing in France. We hoped it was right.

We were then bringing in the harvest until the end of August. I then had a spell with the horses. I started off with two and then had to have four and was shown what to do by Cas who was good at it. I went very, very carefully at first and nearly came a cropper on several occasions but I got used to keeping the front two going (and where I wanted them to go) and using the back two for braking, whilst not getting tangled with the others. It seemed a hell of a lot to do for a while but, in the end, I got on very well with them. I couldn’t go as fast as Cas, Wally or the civilians – they tore across the fields when they were empty, leaving me and three of the other P.O.W.s behind. I could never get the hang of cracking the whip in front and above the horse’s heads though. It would have been a wonderful sight in different circumstances, seeing the wagons and horses charging across the fields, riders standing up in their stirrups with whips cracking. It was a great sight with them trying to outdo each other while us four trotted sedately behind.

Phil came back and what a state he was in. He was covered in bruises. He said he had run from where he was caught to the nearest town, which he thought was about six miles. He was then beaten up and put into a civilian prison where he was treated badly until he was sent back to the camp.

September's work consisted of dung spreading, threshing and picking potatoes. I went and had two more teeth out, so I didn’t have many left now. I didn’t want any more out as it was pure agony and I had passed out this time. There was still no cocaine, with it all going to the troops, or so they said. I had a short spell cooking potatoes in big vats. We had to shovel them out while standing on them. It was very hot work, especially for our feet, and I didn’t like it at all. The potatoes were used for pig feed.

On October the 23rd we started digging and cutting sugar beet. We worked in pairs for this and we were given a set length to do in the fields each day. The Baron slipped up this time and we finished each lot by 11:00 am and 12:30 pm, and that was it for the day. They tried to stretch it a bit but it didn’t work, as we then went slow and got nowhere near finishing what had originally been marked out. It made no difference how much they chased us, so they brought the length back to where it was at first.

I received a letter from my Father to say that Syd, my brother, had got married on the 1st of September. I wished them all the best but how I wished I could have been there for the ceremony. Another winter was coming and I dreaded them as they were so cold. We heard that Karl had gone to Russia; one of the civilians told us. That was one German I did feel sorry for. He didn’t seem like one as he used to joke with us and curse Hitler the same as we did.

Once a month three men had to go to Reisenburg with the wood burning cab and trailer to fetch flour from the mill. I went several times and we nearly always managed to pinch some flour for ourselves. This month I went and was caught stuffing a small sack into my blouse by the civilian in charge there. He went berserk, called the guard and wanted me shot, but we had a decent guard with us and he managed to calm him down. In the meantime, while all the shouting was going on, Harry got a large sack and hid it underneath the trailer, so we did better after all. On the way back we had to sit on the back of the cab but a Pole, who was with us, tried to get to the trailer to fill a small sack he had with flour but he slipped, fell under the wheels and was killed.

December started with us threshing oats which was an easy job because they are so light. We kept ramming them into the machine trying to get it to jam up. It would start to groan and then slow down and then the civilians and guards would start shouting “Langsom, das ist zu viel, langsom!” (Slowly that’s too much, slowly!) We would then slow up but gradually increase it again and sometimes we would succeed and it would grind to a halt. They would shout, holler and threaten but it gave us a break while they cleared it. Barley was the worst to thresh. All the bits came off the ears and stuck to our jackets and trousers so that in the end we looked like porcupines and they were murder to get off.

Christmas Day. We all gave the cook something from our food parcels and he cooked a smashing dinner which we ate in the other room. In the evening we had a concert and called it Panto Mania and it was a great success. The guards and the Commandant came in and sat in the front row. One of the chaps was quite a good comedian and he made a lot of jokes about the Germans and the guards, in particular. They were roaring with laughter, but they didn’t know what he was saying. If they did, they wouldn’t have laughed so much. It seems such a little thing now but it pleased us to think we were getting back at the Germans. On Boxing Day fourteen of us had tea together and then a dance in the evening. When we were in bed, Albert Stage (we called him Stagger) went through his repertoire of monologues – and he knew a few too. He was a Geordie and he kept us in fits. Some of them were very ripe and god knows how he remembered them all.

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form (including photocopying or storing it in any medium by electronic means and whether or not transiently or incidentally to some other use of this publication) without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
Website designed by Pete Hunnisett (Derek's nephew)