John Jay: Researching a Prisoner of War

My name is John Jay and I am the author of Facing Fearful Odds – My Father’s Story of Captivity, Escape and Resistance, 1940-45 published by Pen & Sword and available on Amazon, through Pen & Sword itself and “all good bookshops”, to use publishing industry parlance. My father, Rifleman Alec Jay of the 1st battalion of the Queen Victoria’s Rifles, was part of the 30th Infantry Brigade and was captured at Calais in May 1940. He spent five years “in the bag”, almost all of them at Lamsdorf and its various working parties. He escaped five times, was recaptured on four occasions, was tortured by the SS/Gestapo and made to dig his own grave before being sent back to Lamsdorf. He was able finally to stage a successful escape in the first few weeks of 1945, ending the war as an honorary Czech partisan, fighting against Germans in the Czech mountains before travelling to Prague to take part in the Prague Uprising, the last major action of the war and one that was still continuing after VE Day.

Researching the book involved serious archival research. My starting point was to approach the Historical Disclosures department of the Army Personnel Office in Glasgow. From there I obtained my father’s service record, which included some details about his capture and his return in 1945. I also obtained duplicates of his medals from the Ministry of Defence Medal Office in Innsworth.

Stage two was to visit the UK National Archives at Kew, where I read the MI9 reports, both the basic ones and the extra-detailed ones for people involved in escaping and evading, and the Red Cross and Swiss protecting power reports for Stalag VIIB/344 and its associated working parties. After my initial trawl, I returned to Kew on a number of occasions to research POWs whose existence I discovered from other sources.

Stage three was to do a joint trip with a military historian to Calais to see as much as I could of pre-war and wartime Calais and to follow the initial stages of the Long March as the Calais captives were marched inland by their captors in late May and early June 1940.

Stage four was to see if I could find my father’s German POW record card, which had been handed over to Britain at the end of the war under the provisions of the surrender. At the time, the records were held by the Department of Work and Pensions because British bureaucrats were using German records to try to establish the veracity of former POWs’ claims to benefits etc. This situation is different now because the National Archives has taken over these records. The German record card gave me details of my father’s entry into Lamsdorf, it contained a camp registration photograph and it had information about his working parties, information from which I was able to confirm the accuracy of his memory when filling in his MI9 card on returning to Britain in 1945.

Stage five was to visit the National Army Museum in Chelsea and also delve into the archives of various military units, such as the Royal Army Medical Corps, whose men looked after my father in the Lamsdorf infirmary, as well as the Queen Vics and their sister regiments, the 60th Rifles and the 1st battalion of the Rifle Brigade. The Queen Vics visit to the old Rifles office in Davies Street in the West End was particularly useful.

Stage six was to travel to Lamsdorf/Łambinowice and to a number of the working parties where Dad was condemned to forced labour. The POW museum at Łambinowice is a branch of the Polish prisoner of war museum at Opole/Oppeln, where the curator showed me some microfiche material containing lists of working party members, lists that included my father’s name. Armed with these names, as I mentioned above, I returned to Kew to hunt out more MI9 reports and Red Cross/Swiss reports.

Stage seven was to make two journeys to Moscow to visit the Russian State Military Archive and the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The latter is the gold mine for anyone wishing to research their fathers’ and grandfathers’ POW experiences because Red Army intelligence officers and clerks took all the files they found at Lamsdorf back home with them, regardless of their relevance because I think they believed such documents might be of use to them at a later stage. It is, however, a difficult gold mine to enter. During my first visit, I was limited to just a few files per day and it required the intervention of the Russian embassy in London for me to be able to call up a bulk order of files for one extended session lasting a whole week. The documents are mostly in German while negotiating the archive staff required good Russian; fortunately, I had help from a trilingual Russian Jew; his services were invaluable. Among the documents were further lists of men on working parties as well as police and legal documents relating to escapers and their subsequent interrogation and punishment.

Throughout this process, I delved deeply into primary published sources, books written by returning POWs after the war, I talked to a few surviving Queen Vics as well as other Lamsdorf veterans still then alive as well as the children of POWs. I visited the House of Commons archive to see the Airey Neave collection because Airey Neave had been captured at Calais and had written a book called The Flames of Calais. I found among his documents excerpts from the unpublished report on Calais put together by Lt Col Ellison-McCartney and the other Queen Vics officers when they were in the bag.

I also read as many secondary sources I could find written by professional historians, both academic and popular. My interest was twofold: to learn more about the siege of Calais and to learn about the Lamsdorf POWs and the POW experience in general. At the same time, I scoured the internet for online sources about the Second World War – the Wikipedia entries about various camps, the BBC’s wartime memories project, the various websites put together by the families of POWs and other POW research enthusiasts and even online copies of Pentagon papers related to the United States Army Air Force daylight raids on Eastern Europe in 1944 and early 1945. The published nominal rolls of POWs, both British and from within the Empire, were a particularly useful source.

For those wishing to know more, you will find a bibliography at the back of Facing Fearful Odds as well as an index that may contain details of your family members or men who were held alongside your family members. If any of your relatives were in the same working parties as my father, I may have copies of documents that include their names. Facing Fearful is available as an e-book/kindle book and also as a paperback but I also have a few hardbacks left from the original print run.

Visitors to my website, will also find a gallery of images, both photographs and documents that may include the names of their POW relatives.