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Dave Denchfield

Since arriving at Stalag 357 (Fallingbostel) on August 14 1944, life has rapidly become abso-bloody-lutely awful for we ?gentlemen of the RAF? (Churchill?s words ? not mine!). Able to bring with us from Stalag Luft 6 (Memel, Lithuania) via Stalag 355 (Thorn, Poland) only what we could carry, our fags (cigarettes to our American readers ? Ed) soon ran short. As they used greatly to deaden the hunger pangs it was not helpful that the supply of one Red Cross food parcel per man weekly also largely dried up. By early March ?45 we RAF POW ?old timers? had gone through the worst winter ever ? we even had to admit to those we had b---s-----d for so long that it was worse than 8b at Lamsdorf in 41/42 ? and we had been bitter cold, damp and ravenously hungry all the time. My ?fighting? weight back home of 10 st 5 lb was now down to a few pounds under 7 st. My main memory is of sitting on the edge of my top *?pit?, fully dressed complete with French greatcoat, gloves and balaclava, studying calculus, strength of materials etc. or painting watercolours.

However, by early March we began to look for warmer weather and the liberation, and when news of the Rhine crossing was afterwards accompanied by rumours of an evacuation, ?Flip? Jones and myself each made a haversack from odds and ends and stuffed in our evacuation kit ? one each underpants, vest, shirt, wash bag, towel, eating irons, tin plate and a tin mug made from a Tate & Lyle syrup tin ? so that, when in mid-March the Hun began to roust us out, with the addition of a 5? x 3? cloth laughingly called a blanket, any fags we still had plus whatever non-essentials we could manage, we were ready for the off. Our party of 250 ? just one of many ? strolled out at about 16.00 and walked until near 01.00. It was great to be out and relatively unfettered by the guards ? who by this time were the old, the infirm and the very young ? and shortly after dark fell we two, plus three others, attempted to sidle off down a side road but were caught ? mile away and brought back. Some 15 minutes prior to stopping for the night we all went down flat as a great ball of flame rolled along the ground just fifty yards or so away from us in the field ? next day we were told it was a Mossie (Mosquito) and we thought he?d probably been after the six tanks we?d passed a couple of minutes before. We were dunked into some farm barns for the night and just before dawn I went outside for a pee and then stood watching the flickering western sky and listening to the faint thudding from there. A guard of some years joined me and somewhat quixotically I gave him a fag and we stood quietly smoking. To my ?Das krieg, ist fertig?? (The war is over?) came ?Ja, alles fertig, alles kaput? (Yes, everything is over, everything is finished).

There followed days of walking from farm to farm ? seemingly haphazardly but edging gradually towards Denmark which was rumoured to be our final destination. There were 250 of us spread over perhaps ? mile with guards scattered among us and we were all tired, hungry and bloody cold ? in fact there was a kind of rapport between the goons (guards) and us for we were all being b------d about. I vividly recall sitting at the side of a ditch one wet morning ? six of us vainly trying to roll some of Flip?s Balkan Soubranie pipe tobacco in toilet paper which then had to be licked all over to overcome the porosity. In between we were stripping and reassembling the guard?s machine pistol as he instructed. Some nights we holed up in barns but only too often we slept outside in our inadequate blankets. We froze and I swore I?d never camp again ? one resolution I?ve kept!

One of the other down sides was that by day we all suffered from dysentery ? one night I went sixteen times ? which was most debilitating. I used to walk with the rear coat tails of my French greatcoat buttoned round to the hip (a good design feature!) and reckoned that from the warning stomach churn I could be in the nearest ditch/field/ what have you with trousers down (haversack still on) in ten seconds flat ? it was a foolhardy man who risked taking any longer! At any one time there was always someone so employed. Passing through a village one day we saw one of us clearly in extremis asking an old couple at their cottage door for the use of their outside loo. The arrogant shooing off by the archetypal ?squarehead? (a slang word used to refer to the Germans) was answered by a swift ?trousers down? ? ?trousers up? and then ?run like hell?. Between steps one and two the gleaming white flagstones at the front door received a shock from which I doubt it?s recovered yet! Still, it was all good clean (?) fun and we who saw it were much raised in spirit by the sight and sounds of the puce-faced spluttering German gentleman.

We did have a sick-cart with an MO and two or three orderlies ? on which the ?too sick to walk? were placed but all there was for dysentery was charcoal powder mixed with (floating on) water. Did nowt (nothing) and was awful. On about three occasions we left a party of sick with an orderly to be picked up by the Allies ? we hoped. By April the rough living and lack of facilities had overcome our efforts to keep clean and we were filthy. None of us changed clothing for we couldn?t dry anything washed. Our spare we kept, hoping to be able to have a change and a washday sometime. I would guess we were lousy too ? or ?chatty? as my father would have said in WWI.

About April 20 my knee which, doubtless from all the kneeling on wet ground at cooking fires, had troubled me for a week finally caused me to ask the MO if he had owt (anything) to help and get the answer ?Only stop here with the sick?. Still he let me put my kit on the cart and once I had cut a thick stick with my friendly goon?s knife I was more or less ready for the day. What a good fairy was on my shoulder that day!! Normally we covered perhaps ten miles a day, but today it was going on for thirty ? including a pleasant stroll through the centre of Luneburg where by this time we were far too shattered to attempt to wind up the assembled populace with our call ?Hier sind der terror fliegern? (Here are the terror pilots). We were not allowed to rest until well outside the place and next we were walking across Luneburg Heath along rides cut through the woodland. Crashed aircraft had cut swathes through the trees ? I should have said that all along our route we came across the sad remains of many of our aircraft and everywhere we looked the trees glistened with caught-up **Window. This had been so since our second day out. At one junction of two rides the whole universe seemed on the move ? civilians, service people, men, women and children all going every which way to get home or get to the Western Allies before Uncle Joe (Stalin) could catch them ? this was when Joe was still in East Prussia or thereabouts and Monty (Field Marshall Montgomery) a mere forty odd miles away! Quite late we dropped to the floor. Outside ? at our camping site next to a small stream I, who had started out empty-handed was by this time carrying kit for Flip and Tex (by this time our third member), and we were all cold, hungry and completely clapped (worn out). But there was straw to find, food to heat and firewood to get. We were wet, the ground was wet, the firewood was wet, there was no straw to be found to go under our blanket and we were undoubtedly p----d off and weary. Luckily next day there was a shortish walk from about 14.00 to fetch up at a school near Elbe at Lauenburg from whence we were roused at 03.30 the next morning to cross the river via a bloody great bridge prepared for demolition with what looked like 500 pounders in wooden boxes ? Eddie, who lifted a lid to see, got quite a shock and let the lid go PDQ! We walked S.E. along the banks of the Elbe and rested up alongside it. The three of us stripped off completely and washed at the water?s edge and watched a large barge motoring seaward. Ten minutes later, sitting watching the nude bodies at the edge of the Elbe from some 100 yards away, we cheered four Spits (Spitfires) that came hurtling along the river from southward ? and then went violently flat as pancakes as four lots of canon opened up. As they b------d off we sat up to view the horde of pink bums poking out of the Elbe. No-one was hurt ?apart from those on the barge, which drifted back past us, smoking like mad. We heard a boy was hurt but in the cynical fashion of those days just said ?He shouldn?t bloody well have joined?. During the early afternoon we were walking past verges littered with Red Cross marked litter and whilst pondering what this meant found we were passing the only one of our other parties we were to see, fell out on either side and ? they were all scoffing the RED CROSS PARCELS! Suddenly no longer wet, cold or tired we near galloped into the village where we each collected one Canadian food parcel and 50 Gold Flake fags ? and then watched four Tiffies (Hawker Typhoons ? Ed) send five salvos of rockets down at some unseen target a mile or so away. ?That?s given some sod a headache? said Ted. And so it had. Thirty minutes later all the euphoria of the Canadian chocolate and Messers ***Will?s solace for all gave way to horror and disbelief when we learned the sod was in fact the party we had walked past. Flip and myself lost two very good friends that day.

The food and fags gave a good sense of wellbeing and, as we three found, following Flip?s suggestion, the prunes, eaten boiled, gave quite a relief from the dysentery. Certainly the pains and the frequency were greatly reduced until about two days after we ran out, when both were back in full measure. Eventually we bedded down in some hay barns where we were to spend about five days. Even now I go cold when I recall those rickety old barns with four levels served by a system of Heath Robinson ladders with ****kriegies dug into the hay on all levels with we three on the top floor (some 30 feet up). And in the dark all one could see was a blackness with myriads of glowing fags from ground level up. (Keep the Fire Officer away!).

Unbelievably, the feldwebel i/c (sergeant) of the party had had to ?phone Berlin for details of each march prior to setting out, and now that contact was lost. Hence our sojourn while he waited for events to make his mind up. The rest from walking did us all good and we managed to get reasonably clean ? I stood in the shallows of a lake ? in the snow ? stark naked, soaping and washing down whilst talking to a young German couple of my own age. It all seemed perfectly natural then.

On 30 April the news that we would that evening march about ten miles to the west where the Allies would then be was greeted with the usual kriegie rude comments, but so it proved to be ? our feldwebel had guessed right. Flip, Tex and myself elected not to sleep in the barns we reached ? even to our uncritical eyes they were c--p ? and elected to sleep on the mound of straw outside. One blanket under all three with little Tex in the middle and with two blankets over we slept fully dressed with boots on but laces loosed. We had the best night?s sleep ever and I woke at 06.00 or thereabouts, deliciously warm, to find we had an inch of snow over us ? and we were in fact bedded down on the farm manure heap! It was 1 May and my thoughts did not include a May Queen. Later that day a British Army Captain and sergeant appeared and said we would round up German transport and get back to Luneburg. We spent the next day doing just that and searching POW?s from whence I got a 7.62 automatic (March Police now have it). Flip also rounded up three old carving knives we found in a workshop, so with these stuffed down our socks and guns at our waists we felt a little safer ? until Flip drove us to lunch with a platoon of Green Howards ? he took for ever to get that ?drive on the left WRONG ? the Sherman which came round the corner on it?s right and stopped a fleas bum from our bonnet RIGHT?. The mass of transport at the farm would have served a division. We even had a steam lorry and a swimming truck.

Mid morning on 3 May we set off across the Elbe on a Bailey bridge to reach the large barracks in Luneburg awash with kriegies. And the sheer delight of reasonably cooked hot food and the sheer bliss of HOT water. And then to sleep on a bed with full-size, proper blankets. The next morning we were off again ? ten to the back of an army lorry to stop the night at a little village ? Solingen ? and then the following morning off again westwards to stop at a village, the name of which I?ve forgotten. And then the next day off on the last drive through Germany. We ended up in Emsdetten near the Rheine and were put into a school. We tried the patience of the major i/c by responding to his delivery of Monty?s edict re non-fraternisation with German gels by the clear rather statement that if we could so far recover as to have thoughts in that direction then ?frat? we would and then Monty ? for all we thought of him ? could do unmentionable things with his edict. Having cleared the air there was not much we could do after our meal as it was now dark and the street lighting was non-existent, so it was ?pit time? once more. The following day, 7 May, was spent just walking around Emsdetten until near 16.00 when we visited a recreation centre set up in a part of the municipal offices and for some three hours immersed ourselves in magazines and drank lots of tea/coffee. I was stuck into a mass of ?Illustrated London News? and from the pictures of ordinary life realising what we had missed for 4? years. I suddenly became aware they were shutting up and I was the only one left. Outside it was like the Black Hole of Calcutta ? and which way to go? B------d if I knew. Anyway they say the Devil looks after his own for I set off walking as quietly as I could down the centre of the road with the knife in my left hand and the cocked pistol in my right. Ten minutes later, with no trouble at all, I was at the school ? and so to bed.

Sometime around 23.00 we all came violently awake to the sound of heavy and continuous m.g. (machine gun) and small arms fire. Having thrown on some clothes and grabbed our guns we were told the unconditional surrender had been announced and it was all over.

Just after mid-day on 8 May we were driven through the waste brickyard that had been Rheine to the airfield and at around 16.00, Flip and I took the last two places in a 617 Sqn ?Grand Slam? Lancaster ? YZ-C ? and I have a photo! We landed at Dunsfold and having suffered the DTD spray down each arm and up each trouser leg were taken through into a hanger to be sat at one of many tables, each for ten men and presided over my one of the many women from a multitude of women?s organisation. We had a Wren, and as we ate I like to think we gradually passed one of the more difficult transformations necessary ? how to adapt our normal highly imaginative language to suit mixed company. I did say gradually!

Just after dark we were driven to the railway station to board the train to RAF Cosford and went through crowds of wildly celebrating people.

Flip and I sat down in a carriage and immediately, just like blowing out a candle, we went completely brain dead and sat devoid of thought, feeling, awareness or owt else. I had not experienced this before. However, very gradually as the train wended it weary way west of London we came back to this world and sat, speaking very little and smoking a lot.

A mere 4? years overdue, two fighter pilots had at least flown home ? if not to base ? on VE day.

H D Denchfield

(Retyped from the original text MRHMM ON4513_

*?Pit? ? this is slang for the bunk. David had the top one, probably of 3, straw mattress, 1 blanket, freezing cold, and highly likely that the across slats were mostly missing having been used as firewood or shores for an escape tunnel

** Window - Window was the code for the aluminium strips that the bombers dropped to confuse German defensive radar. It was first used during the 1943 raids on Hamburg that produced appalling devastation.

*** ?Wills? -Wills made cigarettes, he is referring to the packs of Benson & Hedges found earlier.

**** ?Kriegies? Our POWs in Europe called themselves "Kriegies." It's short for the German word for prisoner of war.

Read how David was captured after his Spitfire was attacked over northern France. The story is told in another file in this section of the website.

Keywords RAF; POW; River Elbe, Spitfire; Red Cross
Collection Overseas Battle Fronts
Place Germany
Year 1945
Conflict World War Two
File type html
Record ID number 207

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