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An Interview with my Dad, a Prisoner of War

In this weeks piece, writer Tom Kelly looks back and explores the life of his father in an interview conducted in 1990 just before he sadly passed. Tommy Kelly, A Jarrow man, he recalls his time with the Green Howards his deployment to France and his time as a Prisoner of War. The whole article is in his words.

One morning in September 1938 I received my call-up papers at the age of nineteen. That same day I had a visit from the Means Test man. I argued with him, showing him my call-up papers and telling him what I thought of him.

I was called-up to go into the Green Howards at Richmond Barracks, Yorkshire to do my training. I did four months at barracks. I was then transferred to the First Battalion, Wetherby. After a few months field training, I was sent home to Jarrow for a weeks’ embarkation leave.

I arrived home on Friday night for leave. On Saturday morning I received a telegram to return immediately to Wetherby. On Saturday night, with friends, I drank in Jarrow. All of them set me off at Newcastle Central Station. Having had too much to drink, me and Joe McCurry overslept. Instead of changing at Darlington, I found myself at Doncaster. In the blackout, there was no light in the station. In the waiting room we lay on two sailors kit bags. Waking dazed, the next morning, I didn’t know where I was, a sailor told me I was at Doncaster. Me and Joe McCurry went to Wheatley Hill, Doncaster, to my sister’s house. We got a lift there but she wasn’t at home. We had a big breakfast at my sisters-in-law. We stayed an hour and went to the station for the train to Wetherby. The train was just pulling out when my sister, Kath, ran along the platform. She emptied her purse into our compartment. We got to Wetherby after a few stops and were put under close arrest for being late.

Our embarkation was kept a secret. As we marched with full kit to the station, the whole town, of Wetherby turned out. From Wetherby we went to Southampton then onto Boulogne. From there we went onto Arras. From Arras to Armentieres in northern France, which was the Battalion’s H.Q. The Green Howards had to go into night patrols along the Maginot Line.

After three months the Germans were invading Norway, landing in Oslo. The Green Howard’s were despatched to Southampton. We were sent to Dunfermline, where I was fitted-out with a fur coat and heavy thick gloves. We embarked to Rosyth, where the navy welcomed us with food packs. We were sent to HMS Birmingham and embarked to an unknown destination.

The convoy left that night, with HMS Birmingham, my ship, HMS York; Newcastle and Glasgow, with an escort of nine destroyers, as well as merchant navy ships. We were approaching the Norwegian coast when we were attacked by German Stukas.

One attack just missed the Birmingham and upset the whole ship. One sailor told me that we had been hit by a torpedo but not to worry. As dawn broke, I was transferred from HMS Birmingham onto a destroyer. We went into Narvik under the protection of British cover. The Germans had already bombed Narvik, they dropped paratroopers outside of Narvik but the German army captured them. The Norwegians put complete faith in the British troops.

I was then transferred to Andenes.

We were told to do rear guard action. After heavy fighting in the area with the Sherwood Foresters, we decided to withdraw. The Green Howard’s had been allocated to rear guard action to allow East York’s and Lancs to embark from their ships.

It really was a lost cause already. The British weapons the Green Howards had were useless against tanks. The Germans held-out because of the narrow Norwegian roads. The Germans could not retrieve their tanks because the roads were so narrow. The British were able to hold out for three weeks.

I was then in the final stand of the British on the road to Andenes. This proved to be hopeless. Casualties were very high. After we had lost practically the whole company, the ones left climbed into the hills. We lived on snow, which made our tongues like leather. We met Norwegian ski-troopers. They took us to an old farmhouse, which had underground cattle storage. I was with a lad called Joe Downey. Things were getting risky for the people of the house. They decided to find another place for me and Joe Downey. They gave us snow boots. Eventually we came to another house and joined up with men from the Green Howards and the Sherwood Foresters. All the Green Howard officers had been killed on the road to Andenes. It was decided we could not stay and it was thought we should go to Sweden.

We had a visit from a man who said he had been educated in Edinburgh. He said he could get us to Sweden. He took us to a village called Voss.

He said he could get us transport to Sweden. On the way to the village, we walked through small paths with pine trees on each side. Halfway down a path we were greeted by ‘Halt’. These were the first words we heard spoken by a German. The man who led us was a Norwegian quisling. The Germans made us sit on the bank sides.

One of the German soldiers came across and spoke perfect English to us. He told us we had been betrayed. The Germans had been simply waiting for us coming.

We were transferred down country to Oslo.

We were put in Norwegian Naval Barracks. That night Oslo was bombed by British planes. We were then transferred to Hamburg by ship. The convoy passed Denmark. We went through the Kiel Canal to Hamburg where we went into the German barracks.

There we had a visit from a man with an Irish tri-colour on his coat. He informed us that he was William Joyce, Lord Haw Haw. He had with him writing paper and envelopes. He asked us to write our names and addresses and also give information about ships and convoy. We gave him only our names and addresses.

We were taken from Hamburg to Marienburg Stalag XXB and from there onto Karlish where there were hundreds of Polish casualties, some with arms and legs missing. They were getting no treatment. It was pitiful. The Polish officers had been fed with propaganda. The Polish cavalry had charged German tanks, ignorant of what they were up against.

In Kalisz, I was put to work digging canals. By then all the men were pitiful, unshaven and dirty. We were sleeping on lice-ridden straw bunks. Me and others used to pick lice out of each other’s shirts. Polish people used to share food with us. Peasants would leave black bread and sausage underneath our barrows, although they were hungry themselves.

After Kalisz I was transferred to Lindberg. A Jarrow lad called Furlong went berserk one night after he found that his twin brother had been killed and a lad called Johnson and me had to hold him down.

After a few months we were transferred into the heart of Poland. We were embarked at a place called Poznan. On the way from the station to the camp the people were amazed to see their first British prisoners of war. One man was on the top of a baker’s van and he was so overjoyed he picked up some buns and threw them to the British soldiers. The man was pulled off the van and beat-up by the Germans. The following day we were cleaning bricks from the demolished houses of Jews. We had our first sight of the Star of David on Jews going to work at a camp. Men and women looking worse than the British. After a few months at Poznan I realised the number of Jews were going down.

I volunteered for farm work, outside Poznan. I was taken, with a dozen others to Rundaveza (which means ‘a round field’). I was on a farm with Poles. Catholic soldiers were particularly liked. One day I was thinning out beetroot, it was a hot summer’s day, when I started singing ‘Ave Maria’ in Polish. They made friends with me. I gave my rosary beads to one of the Polish girls.

I also met Duggie Young, a Jew, (unbeknown to the Germans) from Upper Clapham, London. Every morning, a German called Hess, a violent man, would accuse Duggie of being a Jew. Duggie tried to take his rifle from him one morning. The German Commandant was sent for, and we were both seriously worried. The captain came and he spoke English. I explained the story. I accused the guard of not being properly dressed, as he didn’t have his buttons fastened up, he was severely reprimanded by the captain, he also accepted my story.

These were Polish army barracks. I was with prisoners from the Rawl Pindi. There were 150 in the barracks. The bunks were in rows, three tiers high, all wooden boards, with loose straw, no pillows, no blankets. Everyone tried to get the top bunk, since the lice would fall from the top bunk. Roll call came at seven o’clock and German officers would count us. The food consisted of potatoes boiled with their jackets on, mixed with German sauerkraut (cabbage boiled in white vinegar). The tannoy system gave out propaganda, saying how many British towns had been bombed. I was there six months and it was very boring. We had no razor blades and we had to get our hair shaven off, because of the lice. I had a beard but no hair. There was about five or six thousand Poles in the camp.

This was an old mill factory. Here I had only a coarse straw bag to lie on. Food consisted of potatoes and sometimes beetroot or carrot and a lump of black bread, with a pot of ersatz coffee, made from ground wheat, which tasted horrible. Here I worked in the canals, with soil and turf. I would do this for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. The peasants would leave food beneath our barrows, which they could ill-afford themselves. I was there six months.

This was on the Polish-German border. This was the largest camp I was in.

It was here I found a French officer who had hung himself in the toilets. There were no lights and I bumped into him hanging there.

Here I was off-loading wagons-food for the German troops. Again, I was in a three-tier bunk. The food was watery soup. Whoever got to the front of the queue first, got the pot rind, and a battle usually occurred. There was an officer there we called ‘Scarface’, who claimed he’d been given the scar from a soldier in the Durham Light Infantry in the First World War. The new men would turn their caps around if they were in the Durham Light Infantry.

I got a skin disease on my arms and legs, like eczema. I was treated there. It was approaching Christmas time and they decided to keep me in bed to feed me up. They pretended I wasn’t getting well. I would song ‘Rose Marie’ every night for the Polish doctor. I spent Christmas Eve with them in hospital. They all came round with pieces of unleavened bread in their mouths, and I had to break off a piece with my mouth. This was a Polish custom, as sign of love. After Christmas, the bandages were removed and I was discharged. I was sent back to Rundareza, but due to a clerical mistake, I was sent to Rundaveida, about fifteen miles away and worked at a sugar beet factory, emptying wagons of beet. The beet was frozen, and the job was very hard.

After this seasonal job, I was sent to Marienburg, just beside the German border. In Marienburg, I was off-loading wagons on railway lines for the German front. I met John Fullerton and John Murray of Jarrow. Fullerton used to steal peas. In the camp were Frenchmen and Yugoslavs. One day I went into the toilet and found a Frenchman had hung himself. I ran to French headquarters to tell his officer. When the officer and I got back to him, his French Alpine boots had been stolen. The French were very hungry and one day I saw them eat a crow. I had communion from a French priest. He also ran a choir, in which I sang. I went to see an officer and got transferred back to Rundaveza, for a second spell. I was then receiving Red Cross parcels. The British had taken over the camps’ organisation because the Germans were losing control. As propaganda, British troops used to show the German soldiers their chocolate and coffee.

I traded my coffee for sausage, using a tin of sand with some coffee on the top.

I was transferred to a farm owned by a man called Herr Pisk, who had four sons in the German army. The farm was run by Polish labour. I would take the vegetables to market and was also in charge of the bull. One day the bull broke its chain and all the Polish people ran for cover. I used to make hooch from barley and sugar. I used to bury the tobacco the farm produced, in cow dung. I would also smuggle eggs out of the farm in my uniform.

The old Polish men had to join the Home Guard for the Russians coming. One night I was allowed to say good-bye to the old farmer and his wife. The next morning, I saw refugees on the road, which were blocked, on the start of the trek to Germany.

George Quick and I became friends. George was from Falmouth, we used to sleep in barns along the way. There was snow on the ground and we used to put our socks on our shoulders to dry. One night, George Quick, who was a chef, and I cooked a piglet. Another night we got into a cheese factory and had some Dutch cheese, which tasted like nectar. Along the way we met a column of American officers and captains, about 200 hundred at least. As they got alongside, they asked us to speak German for them. We walked along with them and found out they had been captured at the Battle of The Bulge, on Christmas Eve.

We reached a marshal yard, which was desolated. We were all put into cattle trucks. After a short while the freight yard was attacked by bombers and everyone ran for cover. We left the freight yard and marched again next morning. George Quick was tired and so we stayed one night in a barn. We got a lift on a horse and cart to the Luckenwalde camp, which had Russian and Italians. They would shoot Russians every night, about twenty at a time. Every night I had to help bury German civilians. We had to go through the nearby German houses and one night we had to bury a little girl with the side of her face blown off.

In Mass one morning the priest told us we would soon be liberated. Before the end of the Mass, Russians burst through the gates of the camp. The British and Americans put guards on the food store. The Russians were so hungry, they would lick the empty tins thrown away by the British and Americans. The Russians tried to raid the food store. Marshall Zhukov was in charge of the liberation. They ravaged the town of Luckenwalde and all the towns’ women had to hide in the woods. The Russians graves were opened and the Russians had their own film crew film all their bodies.

They made all the countries hold flags over the graves as they filmed.

Every day the Russians held registration. I would call myself Murphy to save trouble with names and I told others to do the same. A Russian captain told me we were going to be marched to Odessa, so some Canadians and me got out of the camp. It was night and after a while we saw two shining eyes, it was a Black American soldier who told us to come with him. He took us into a truck with other Negro soldiers. We had to go through Russian lines. We got through by waving a piece of folded paper to each Russian at each checkpoint. We reached the river Elbe and went over the Bailey bridge.

In Berlin we were de-loused and washed. We were at an American base camp, which was on a sports field. I got my first white bread during the war.

I had to go to interrogation to the War Crimes Commission, where you had to name Germans who had mistreated you. I reported a captain out of Marienburg.

I was flown to Belgium by an American plane. We were taken to artillery in the centre of Belgium. I got English currency and fresh papers and was given telegrams.

After a fortnight I was flown to a small village in Sussex, where I had a medical and was fitted out with a uniform.

My family were waiting when I got to Newcastle Central Station after midnight. Crowds of prisoners were coming off trains and the station was packed with people, some of them singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

After six weeks I went back to Richmond for fresh training, for six months. I finished off in the Regimental Police, as a Lance Corporal training recruits.

I was finally demobbed in February 1946.


Tom Kelly is a Tyneside writer who has had a great deal of his stage work produced by the Customs House, South Shields. His ninth poetry collection 'This Small Patch' has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four.

RIP Tommy Kelly Senior (1919-1990)


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