POW Anecdotes

Last updated on January 1st, 2021 at 05:07 pm

Harry William Manchester related a variety of “war stories” to his son during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These stories were mostly about Harry’s experiences during his time in England prior to The Dieppe Raid and during his time as a POW, captured at Dieppe.

These stories are retold here, based on his son’s best recollection.

CANADIAN ARMY BASIC TRAINING

Upon completion of basic training (at Camp Borden, Ontario), all recruits were asked if they’d like to join the army (because although basic military training was mandatory, joining the army was voluntary) . Those recruits that answered “no” found themselves “failed” and sent back to basic training for “re-training.” Essentially, this “re-training” procedure was repeated until one answered “yes” to volunteering to join the army.

Military Police Service in England

SHELLED IN DOVER

While on duty with No 2 Coy (Number 2 Company) of the Canadian Provo Corps, Harry Manchester rode a motorcycle as a military policeman. The Provo Corps conducted routine road patrols and truck convoy escort duties as motorized motorcycle sections (i.e., platoon-sized units).

One day circa early 1942, while Harry’s section was riding as part of a military police motorcycle patrol into Dover, England, artillery shells began exploding along the road. These shells came from German artillery units in the Wissant/Calais area on the French side of the English Channel; from German units which observed the military police motorcycle formation riding into Dover, and which then tried to shell that formation.

The motorcycle patrol abruptly reversed course and got out of Dover.

PERILS OF COMFORT

During field training prior to the Dieppe Raid (Spring of 1942), probably on the Ilse of Wight, two tank crewmen were killed when they incautiously bedded down and tried to sleep beneath their tank because of the heavy rainfall. Due to heavy rains, which they got under the tank to avoid, the ground softened and the tank settled upon them during the night. Other soldiers present attempted to dig them out as the tank settled, but were unsuccessful, and the two tank crewmen were crushed to death.

Dieppe Raid

MILITARY POLICE MISSION

As a member of the Canadian Provo Corps (military police), Harry was included in the first wave of The Essex Scottish Regiment that landed on RED BEACH during The Dieppe Raid. His mission was to take custody and charge of any German prisoners captured by the Essex Scottish Regiment during the raid, eventually to evacuate those prisoners to England.

CHANNEL CROSSING

The attack units for The Dieppe Raid crossed the English Channel to France as a convoy and loaded into open landing craft approximately 20 miles off the French coast. Once in the landing craft, L/Cpl Harry Manchester was overtly laughing at several soldiers in his landing craft that became sea sick and were vomiting. His laughing stopped when he abruptly vomited.

SURRENDER ON RED BEACH

At the conclusion of The Dieppe Raid on RED BEACH, some of the survivors from the Essex Scottish Regiment and support troops had taken cover from the incessant German machine gun fire behind a disabled landing craft, on the seaward side of the craft. That landing craft prevented the gun fire from hitting the men. Here they were pinned down by the cross-fire; and in the early afternoon of the Raid, the tide was coming in and the water was rising around these survivors.

An officer present within the group of survivors realized that rescue was not forthcoming, and the choice was to surrender of drown.

The officer then ordered the survivors to throw their arms (weapons) further into the English Channel to prevent their capture by the Germans; and then instructed an enlisted man to remove his white T-shirt and wave it as the flag of surrender.

Harry William Manchester was within that group of survivors.

Harry William Manchester went into captivity on August 19, 1942, with the remnants of the Essex Scottish Regiment that surrendered on RED BEACH. He had been wounded by shell fire (probably mortar fire) after landing on the beach, and had to be carried off the beach.

POW Camp Life

The Canadian prisoners of war captured at Dieppe were transported to Stalag VIIIB Lamsdorf in Silesia. Harry was interned there until his transfer to Stalag IID in StargardPomerania, sometime in early 1944.

DOMESTIC ARRANGEMENTS

The Canadian POWs formed small groups to look after each other and care for one another. This included sharing food and supplies, domestic duties and living space. The prisoners referred to this arrangement as “mucking in;” and those that formed a small group “mucking in” as “muckers.”

Harry’s muckers were Douglas (Doug) Scratch of Ontario, who was captured at Dieppe as a member of The Calgary Tanks, and William (Bill) Russell from Winnipeg, Manitoba, also captured at Dieppe. (Regiment unknown, albeit suspected to be The Calgary Tanks.) These three formed “the muckers,” and would remain close friends until their deaths many years later.

The Camp Is A Community

The German POW camps were internally sectioned by the nationality of prisoners, and as such each camp typically had separated compounds within the totality of the camp for Canadian/British, American, French, and Russian POWs. These compounds were separated from each other by a single fence, with interconnecting central gates, manned by a guard. This arrangement allowed for controlled access between compounds, so that the POWs of the different nationalities could engage in some level of trade and interaction.

FOOD

Prisoners of War are fed no better than the general civilian population of the nation holding the prisoners. As a result, during the Winter of 1945, food became scarce, and at one point Harry and his fellow POWs only had turnips for food for an extended period of time.

The Price Of Cat

The prisoners often raised and kept pets in the camps. In one camp, probably Stalag VIIIB, the Canadians kept a cat, and the French prisoners raised and kept rabbits.

One day, some French POWs sold some meat to some Canadian POWs, and because meat was scarce, the Canadians enjoyed the feast. However, soon thereafter, the Canadians noticed their cat was missing. They put two and two together, and realized they had been had. So…

The Canadian POWs devise to “raid” the French compound and steal their rabbits.

They were entirely successful and managed to get the rabbits back to the Canadian compound; but as luck would have it, the French soon discovered what had occurred and proceeded to gain entry to, and search the Canadian compound to recover their rabbits.

Upon observing the French search in progress, Harry and Doug Scratch proceeded to immediately “process” the rabbits (which were alive and healthy at this point). Doug Scratch, who was an Ontario farm boy and avid hunter, grabbed the first rabbit and shoved it into Harry’s hands, with Harry holding a rear leg in each hand, and the rabbit hanging upside-down, belly toward Doug. Doug said: “Hang on to that rabbit.”

Doug Scratch then immediately shoved his index finger into the rabbit’s rectum and “ripped downwards,” immediately disemboweling the rabbit.

Doug then grabbed the (now dead) rabbit from Harry and replaced it in Harry’s hands with the next rabbit (alive and healthy) in the same manner; and promptly repeated the process. The remaining rabbits were subsequently processed identically, requiring about ten seconds per rabbit.

In this manner, the Canadian POWs taught the French POWs the price of cat.

(Years later, Harry related that his eyes were quite wide while Doug worked.)

How Not To Help

The Canadian POWs received tea on occasion within the Red Cross parcels from home. However, parcels from home were always scarce and therefore, tea was scarce and cherished.

One method to ensure a brew of tea, was to never clean out the tea pot. After many months, a weak brew of tea was possible by just boiling water in a “dirty” tea pot without adding more tea. This method allowed a brew of tea between Red Cross parcels.

Once however, a new POW came into the camp and joined the “muckers.” In an effort to “help out” the old-timers, he cleaned out the dirty tea pot by scrubbing it with sand. Harry reports that “we just about killed him.”

Happy Birthday!

While at Stalag VIIIB (at Lamsdorf in Silesia), the Canadian POWs celebrated the sixteenth birthday of a fellow Canadian POW.

THE RED CROSS

Throughout World War II, the International Red Cross served as the non-combatant liaison between belligerents and prisoners and their homes and countries of origin. In this role, the Red Cross was the primary conduit for mail to and from POWs, as well as parcels sent from home. As such, the Red Cross was an important and preeminent presence throughout the war.

In addition to mail and parcels, Canadian POWs received “cigs” (i.e., bulk packages of cigarettes) sent to the prisoners from tobacco companies in Canada. The cigs were purchased by the POWs’ relatives and friends, but mailed via the Red Cross directly from the tobacco companies. Hence, the prevalence of receipt post cards mailed from the POW camps back to Canadian families and friends attesting to the receipt of packages of cigs.

Other items were delivered to the POWs by the Red Cross, including clothing and musical instruments. This allowed the prisoners to entertain themselves with music. Harry received a trumpet in this manner.

VERBOTEN ITEMS

Prisoners of War are forbidden to possess certain items that may be deemed contraband.

First and foremost of these are any items that could defeat prevention of escapes, or recovery of escaped POWs; such as common household pepper, which could be used to defeat the nose of tracking dogs. Hence, the prisoners were not allowed to have pepper.

Cameras were also prohibited, as were compasses and maps.

WORK DETAILS

The Germans used POWs extensively for work details. There were several score “work Kommandos” in existence in the Lamsdorf area itself. These kommandos were staffed by upwards of one-to-two hundred POWs and were geographically dispersed in the areas surrounding the various POW camps. They served local industrial facilities and agriculture by performing manual labor.

Harry was assigned to a work kommando that performed forestry service. in addition, Harry learned the German language sufficient to serve as one of the POWs’ camp interpreters.

Tunnel Work

Harry reported that at at least one POW camp, one POW work detail was to dig large underground tunnels that ran for several hundred feet under, and parallel to the ground surface. The purpose of the tunnels were to bury dead POWs and other prisoners: as people died, their bodies would be taken down into, and to the end of a tunnel, and covered with a few inches of earth.

That was a permanent work detail because as the digging of one tunnel was completed, the previous tunnel was filled up.

“…Just As Hungry”

The forestry work kommando prisoners traveled to and from the POW camp and the forest by riding with their guards, on railroad flatcars, which were reserved for service work in the forest. This was a slow-speed narrow-gauge railway that served the forest. 

At the end of one workday, when riding on the flatcars out of the forest, the prisoners and guards noticed a magnificent stag moving out of the forest ahead of the locomotive, about to cross the railway tracks ahead of the locomotive. Upon observing the stag, Harry immediately grabbed his axe (used for forestry work) and ran forward ahead of the locomotive. At that point, Harry threw the axe overhand style (like a tomahawk) in an attempt to kill the stag. The axe flew tomahawk-style and was about to strike the stag when the stag suddenly stopped, the axe flew past just its nose, and then the stag continued onward and bounded off into the forest.

When asked why the guards did not attempt to stop him from trying to kill the stag, Harry retorted: “The guards were just as hungry as we were.”

MANACLES

On October 8, 1942, the Germans began the process of tying the hands of the Canadian POWs at Stalag VIIIB . Initially, they were tied with cord, which was later replaced by steel manacles. They were manacled daily from dawn to dusk for thirteen months.

Although most reports state that this was done in retaliation for instructions in the Dieppe Raid attack orders to tie any captured German forces (as POWs), the German guards informed the Dieppe POWs that it was done because during the Dieppe Raid, allied forces (probably British Commandos) captured and tied German soldiers guarding a “torpedo dump in a cave” (somewhere on the Dieppe coast), left the tied German prisoners in the cave, and promptly blew up the cave with the prisoners still inside.

Dealing With Guards

The daily drill was: line up at a table first thing in the morning, where the seated German guard would put the manacles on each POW for the day. (They’d be taken off at the end of each day.)

So being sassy Canucks, they decided to have a little fun. (Not to mention that just because one is a prisoner, one does not get to “sit back and wait for liberation.”)

There was one POW who was good a picking locks. As each POW got his manacles put on by the guard, the POW would go to the back of the line, where the locks were picked, and the manacles were taken back off. Each POW would then get back in line and move forward to have the manacles put back on by the guard. (Because wearing manacles was required, and we don’t want to break any rules.)

Each prisoner did this many times over, the line never ended, and the guard was eventually and literally reduced to tears.

Pretty soon, the guards learned to be less attentive about the manacles.

Russian Front

The favorite reward for an uncooperative guard was to set him up so that he would get blamed for a prisoner infraction on his watch; something that would result in his transfer to the Russian Front. They all knew that was a one-way trip.

So the guards learned to be…less efficient. As in deaf, dumb, and blind.

JET AIRCRAFT TESTING

Later in the war, Harry and the other POWs witnessed the test flights of German jet aircraft. This probably occurred in 1944 while Harry was a prisoner at Stalag IID, at Stargard, Poland.

The pilots would test the aircraft by performing a steep climb from just above ground level, until the aircraft was barely visible at high altitude. Then the test pilots would throttle-back the engine, and glide the aircraft in an un-powered circling descent, spiraling down, until the aircraft was again just above ground level, at which point, the pilots applied power and again put the aircraft back into a steep ascent back to altitude. This form of testing was repeated over and over.

This testing occurred on a sustained basis, and was readily observable by anyone on the ground, such as the POWs.

ESCAPE

As soldiers, the Canadian POWs had a duty to resist their captors, and they were very active in various escape-related activities.

Typically, the officers in charge would send men out of the camp stealthily (generally at night) on reconnaissance missions, the purpose of which were to gain intelligence about the surrounding area and transportation facilities. These missions generally lasted only over night.

When the POWs had sufficient intelligence, they could commission actual escape missions.

Additionally, the POWs set up a variety of escape routes using railroad facilities, such as a box built into a gondola car (used for hauling potatoes) within which an escapee could hide under the contents of the gondola.

PUNISHMENT

Under international prisoner of war agreements, prisoners are subject to disciplinary processes, such as “corporal punishment.” The Canadian POWs continued resistance efforts while in captivity, and occasionally were caught violating various rules.

One disciplinary measure used by the German guards was to stand a POW with his nose against a wall and his hands tied behind his back; essentially, at the “position of attention.” If the POW’s nose left the wall, the guard standing behind the prisoner would strike the prisoner’s hands with a baton.

The prisoner was require to stand in that positions for an entire day.

THE MARCH

Sometime around February 25, 1945, Harry and the other POWs in Stalag IID were marched westward ( probably to Stalag XIB near Fallingbostel in Lower Saxony ) because of the approaching Soviet armies; the Germans did not want the POWs liberated by the Soviets.

That western destination was eventually liberated by British troops in April 1945.

This movement of prisoners, including political prisoners, westward to avoid liberation by Soviet armies became known as The March, or variations of that name. Because many tens-of-thousands of prisoners from hundreds of camps where marched westward, many parallel routes on “back roads”  were utilized.

Currently, the approximately two dozen documented accounts of The March, recounted by Allied POWs, survive as “diaries.”

“We’ll ‘Remember You’”

During these marches, the POWs had “frank” conversations with their guards about “…either we get a ten minute rest every hour that we’re marching, or when you’re defeated, we’ll ‘remember you’.”

The upshot was that because the guards knew they were losing the war, and realized that it behooved them to make the POWs’ life easier, the POWs got their ten minute rest periods.

Unfortunately, the political prisoners who were also marched along the same routes, not having any leverage with the guards, were not allowed rest breaks.

LIBERATION

Harry was liberated by British armor forces in mid April, 1945, probably at Stalag XIB near Fallingbostel in Lower Saxony . Harry and the other prisoners awoke one morning to find a British tank parked outside of the POW camp main gate. (Source: Harry’s recollections and the Clare Diary.)

Before the POWs were evacuated from the camp, Harry and the other POWs destroyed their musical instruments, because they were not allowed to transport them as part of their repatriation, and mostly so that “the Germans would not get them.”

Harry smashed his trumpet against a tree.