POW (10/43)

Stalag Luft VI (10 October 1943)

Arriving at Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug the exhausted prisoners of war were photographed, fingerprinted and examined by the camp’s medical personnel to ensure that they were vermin free.  Walter Layne was then assigned to Barrack K3, one of the eight huts in the British Compound.

Located close to the Baltic, Stalag Luft VI consisted of four compounds. There were approximately 2,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners in one compound, 2,000 Americans in another and about 1,000 Russians in the third. One compound was unoccupied and would remain so until the evacuation of the camp.

Situated on eight acres a compound consisted of eight single-story wooden structures that had been constructed by Russian POW’s on a flat and sandy site.

Two of the buildings were the latrines and a washhouse  Four were living quarters that were divided into 9 rooms housing up to 60 men.  One building served as the cookhouse and one was an administration building.  A large open area doubled as a sports field and Appel (parade ground) where the prisoners assembled twice daily for roll call.

Each prisoner’s details were recorded by the Germans.  Here we see that Warrant Officer Walter Henry Layne left Dulug Luft with prisoner number 605.  His birth-date of 5.12.16 is recorded as is his birthplace of Brigg and his arrival at Stalag Luft VI on 10.10.43.

Newly arrived aircrew at Heydekrug were interviewed by the camp’s British leader Sergeant James  “Dixie” Deans.    Stalag Luft VI Heydekrug was a prison camp for N. C.O.’s and therefore had no British Commanding Officer.  To overcome this, the prisoners would elect a representative to deal with the Germans.

Due to his natural leadership abilities, the German-speaking Deans was elected Camp Leader or “man of confidence” by his fellow prisoners.  Deans was the go-between for the R.A.F. prisoners and the Germans and fought tirelessly for their well-being.

Introducing himself Deans explained the running of the camp and what was expected of Wally.  He went on to state that it was the airman’s duty to try to escape to which Wally replied, “It’s taken me two years to get here, I’m staying!”  Not all prisoners relished the thought of escaping!

More about James ‘Dixie’ Deans can be read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_’Dixie’_Deans

Wally’s initial stay at Stalag Luft VI Heydekrug turned out to be a short one.  On 18th October 1943, he was transported, accompanied by a guard, in an ordinary passenger train 650 miles to Stalag Luft III at Sagan.  On arrival, he was billeted in the North Compound.   At this time Stalag Luft III was a camp for officers only.

In October of 1943, Stalag Luft III appeared as above.  The “lumps’ in the picture are the stumps of pine trees felled in order to build the camp, they were later removed by the prisoners and burnt as fuel.

The German authorities failed to recognize Wally’s commission as confirmation had only been received by the Red Cross and not by the Air Ministry.  Consequently, after just two weeks at Stalag Luft III Wally’s captors returned him, again under guard by passenger train to Heydekrug, arriving back there on 4th November 1943 and assigning him to barrack C7.

 Each prisoner was allowed to send two letters and four-post cards a month.   At the time of his being shot down his wife, Joan was 4 months pregnant. In his letters to Joan, Wally assured her that he was fit and well and getting plenty of food.  He told her all of his fellow prisoners were optimistic for an early end to the war.

He discussed their domestic matters, her pregnancy and told her of the arrangements he had made for her to receive an allotment from the Air Ministry, initially £3 per week which was increased to £4 on the birth of their child.

All correspondence passed through the camp’s censors where it was read for embedded messages.  Anything written in the letters that the German authority’s deemed unsuitable was blanked out before being forwarded to recipients.

He requested that Joan canvass all of his relatives to send cigarettes and asked her to send him a parcel containing a pipe, hair cream, razor blades, boot polish and pajamas   Pajamas being the only clothes the Red Cross did not issue. The parcel took 5 months to arrive.

Wally told Joan of his days playing football, cricket and rugby and of the very good library at the camp.   Although in a letter dated 7th April 1944 he wrote I am playing Rugby on Sunday, I play for a team called the “Tigers,” what a name, we get about one game a week, that is enough as we don’t get enough food to do much more.”

Unknown to Joan the prisoner’s food supplied by the Germans was sparse.  It consisted mainly of watered down turnip soup, rye bread, sauerkraut and occasionally horse-meat.   Wally and seven other NCOs’  formed a combine for self-preservation.  They pooled all of their resources as a group.  They would barter and scavenge for food and fuel and share the cooking responsibilities.  During the winter of 1943/44, the supply of  Red Cross parcels issued to the prisoners was spasmodic.   By February 12th Red Cross parcels had begun to arrive which helped to alleviate the prisoner’s situation.


Wally’s Combine

The plight of the Russian prisoners of war in the adjoining compound was far bleaker existence than that of the prisoners in the British compound.  Viewed by the Germans as sub-human the Russian prisoners were issued with no Red Cross parcels and were literally worked and starved to death.

After the war, Wally told the story of a disturbance in one of the huts in the Russian compound.  The guards sent in two Alsatians dogs to quell the disorder, within minutes the skins of the dogs were thrown from the door of the hut, the Russians would have fed well that night.

A view from a guard tower at Heydekrug.

Stalag Luft VI  ran an R.A.F. school within the camp known as the “Barbed Wire University.”  At its height, the education facility consisted of three classrooms and a technical and general library.  The “university” was staffed by inmates who had expertise in a particular subject and proved to be very successful.

Professional exams were taken with the results forwarded to Britain by the Red Cross.  The academic work was then appraised and certifications issued as appropriate.

Wally enrolled in a Book Keeping course and a Salesmanship course but had difficulty maintaining interest and enthusiasm and eventually dropped out.

As Christmas 1943 approached, many of the kriegies devoted their time to the illicit manufacture of alcohol for a Christmas “bash.”   They began by hoarding prunes, raisins, and lemonade crystals from their Red Cross parcels.

Adding potatoes that they had saved from their meager rations the prisoners placed the ingredients into a barrel.  The contents were then over time allowed to ferment before being passed through a still that had been manufactured from powdered food cans which also came from the Red Cross food parcels.

During their frequent searches, the Abwehr would often cast a blind eye on the proceedings in the knowledge that they would be getting a sampling.   Consequently, Wally and his hut mates were able to operate and hide their still and brew.  They had surprisingly successful results resulting in more than a few sore heads over the Christmas period.

Of his Christmas Wally wrote the following to his wife Joan.

P.O.W. Air Mail letter Jan 29/44 (Written at Stalag Luft VI Heydekrug)

My darling Joan.  I hope you are keeping well (Jan 29) I am very fit and have nothing much to complain of, I trust you are the same.  We had quite a good Christmas, better than I expected to have as a prisoner of war, we had a special parcel Red Cross parcel instead of the ordinary one, it contained a cake, pudding, chocolate biscuits and other delicacies.  We are still waiting patiently for some skating, the links are all ready for flooding but up to now, the weather has been very mild.  I always imagined this part of the world was terribly cold but up to now it is very much like an English winter, we have had a bit of snow but it clears up almost as soon as it falls which is a pity as we have lots of fun snowballing.

Have you decided on a name for the baby, if it is a girl I think Ruth would be a good idea if it is a boy anything will do but Walter.  This is about my seventeenth letter or card to you, trust you are getting them all right, I haven’t had any yet.

Send plenty of cigarettes, the fellows tell me that only a very small proportion of them get through.  Hope to hear from you soon. 

All my love Walter

At this time there was a very active “Escape Committee”  that monitored and advised on all escape attempts.  A tunnel was being built and the Germans had suspicions that an escape attempt was to be made.

The Abwehr deployed a Steam Roller that chugged around the compound in the hope of collapsing any tunnels but that were under construction.  Much to the prisoner’s relief the roof of the tunnel then being worked on held.

Wally worked for the “Escape Committee” as a  “duty” pilot who acted as a lookout that monitored and reported the Germans movements throughout the camp.  Each and every German that was in the camp was under surveillance by the prisoners and their activities reported on.

Wally also helped with the distribution of the dirt dug from the tunnel. Called “penguins” due to the way they walked when laden down with dirt from the tunnel, these prisoners had bags sewn into their trousers.  The bags were filled with dirt which was released from the bottom of the trousers legs as the prisoners strolled around the compound.

Called “Ferrets” by the prisoners these German enlisted men were trained to search for tunnels and other infractions of the rules by the Kriegies.

One morning in April 1944, the prisoners were called out for a special appel, when all the prisoners were present  Dixie Deans the prisoners “man of confidence”  called the parade to attention.

Immediately a large amount of German troops surrounded the parade-ground armed with machine guns that were pointed at the prisoners.   A German Major then proceeded to read out a statement that 50 British Officers had been shot ‘while resisting arrest’ at Stalag Luft III, Sagan.

After a stunned silence,  the prisoners exploded in rage and there was the potential for a great loss of lives if Dixie Deans’ leadership and example had not defused an explosive situation.  The prisoners were all too aware of the German’s capabilities having witnessed their treatment of Russian prisoners and had no illusions that they would be mowed down by machine-gun fire if they had not heeded Deans’ warnings.

During the spring and early summer of 1944, Wally attempted to grow a garden.  Unknown to him at the time he would not be able to harvest the fruits of his labour as the camp was evacuated before he could harvest.  In a letter to his wife Joan he describes his efforts.

P.O.W. Air Mail letter May 21/44  (Written at Stalag Luft 6 Heydekrug_

My dearest one.  I hope you are well and receiving my mail, I am not doing too badly at all.  I have a piece of land about ten feet square which I have dug up as a garden.  I have three rows of lettuce coming through two of spinach and three of beetroot, I have also one single cucumber just showing its head thru but my tomatoes which are my special pride are two inches high.  I have thirty-three of them in a tin bowl.  I went to a play the night before last called “Grouse In June” it was quite good.  I am not often lonely as I have so many pleasant memories of you and if ever I feel at all miserable I console myself with the thought that I could be a lot worse off, single for example.  Let me know how Bern (Bernard Twilley) and Dick (Richard Campling) are getting on with their work, I hear that their firm have increased their exports a lot lately.  (Here Wally is referring to Twilley and Campling being in Bomber Command and on operations,  Both of these Grantham boys were subsequently killed on operations.) Two more boys from Scunthorpe have come in, one of them says my photo was in the Hull Times, you didn’t mention it, perhaps you didn’t see it.  The latest mail I have had from you was written a day or two after you came out of hospital, there was no date on it.  I hope the baby is getting on all right and doesn’t feature me too much.  I wrote to Bob last month, hope he gets it ok.  I haven’t met any Grantham boys here.

Love Walter

pow garden stalag luft III

A P.O.W. garden in Stalag Luft III.

Just before midnight 12th  June 1944 Wally and his fellow prisoners became aware of a commotion in the compound and it soon became apparent that the theater was on fire.  The prisoners were released from their barracks and formed a bucket chain to the well.  Buckets were passed to men on the roofs of neighboring buildings who threw the contents onto the blazing theater.  Their efforts were to no avail and the theater was destroyed but the conflagration was prevented from spreading.

During their incarceration, by trading with the Germans the prisoners had managed to build radios to which they listened to the B.B.C. News.  The news of the D-Day landings was a great moral booster for the prisoners.  Wally makes mention of this in a postcard to Joan dated June 11th, 1944.

P.O.W. postcard  June 11/44 (Written at Stalag Luft VI Heydekrug)

My dearest Joan, I hope you and David are keeping well, I am very fit and cheerful.  We are having rotten weather here, hope its better in the Channel.  (Here Wally is telling Joan that he knows the Invasion has taken place.)  I have just met a fellow who shared a bed with Bob when they were in the same digs.  I haven’t had any more mail from you but I hope there will be some here before the month is over. 

All my love W

With the advance of the Russians from the east the Germans began evacuating Heydekrug in mid-July to prevent the P.O.W.’s from falling into Allied hands.

Told they could only take what they could carry coveted possessions like blankets and clothing were abandoned.  Food from Red Cross parcels was thrown into the compound cess-pit to ensure they didn’t fall into other hands.

With the sound of artillery fire resonating from the Russian guns to the east and carrying their personal possessions, Dixie Deans marched Wally and 3,OOO of his fellow prisoners 5 miles to a railway station for loading onto cattle trucks for a journey to an unknown destination.

The arduous journey in the boxcars packed with up to 86 men was made in such unbearable heat that the guards permitted the door of the boxcars to remain open.  With no room to sit the prisoners were forced to stand in a mass of bodies.  Water was supplied but no food.

After a two-day journey covering 400 miles, they arrived at Thorn (Torun) in Poland where they “marched” the three miles to P.O.W. camp Stalag 357 a British Army Prisoner Of War camp that already held 7,000 prisoners.

Leaving Stalag Luft VI on 16th July 1944  and arriving at Stalag 357  Thorn two days later, Wally was duly processed in by the German authorities.

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