Life at E578 & E749- Peiskretcham (Pyskowice) Railroad Arbeitskommando
We, the Canadians were called into Stalag 344 on the 7th of March 1944. Supposedly to go to Stalag II D, where the rest of the Canadians had been sent. To a better camp, to work on farms. To make up a better life in compensation for the way we had been treated. The Forester on E608 told us that he hoped we would be able to take home some pleasant memories of Germany with us, after we had been there. The prevalent rumour was that we were going to be repatriated with the draft of wounded going home in May. Such proved not the case. We, after a couple of months rest were sent out on a railroad job E578. It was to be for only three weeks rest, while they got enough together to make up the party. From there we would be again recalled and sent right off to Stettin. Well three weeks past and the premier camp of IID was never seen by us, only arbeit.
We left Lamsdorf May 12 and after traveling all night in box cars reached our commando the next morning. A place called Peiskretcham.
At first the lager looked bad to us with its bare cinder compound. However the first sight proved not a fair judge. After being there a while I think it was one of the best lagers in Germany.
There was a good wash room. Hot running showers. You could get a good bath every day. There were long rows of porcelain washstands with tip bowls to wash in and a good drying room. The wash house was large and could be kept clean as it had a good cement floor with proper drains. The place was steam heated and a civilian was employed to operate the boilers.
The barrack rooms were good with plenty of light, each man had a locker and a spring bed. One of a P.O.W.’s dreams. (Most other commandos have wooden bunks). The rooms could be kept quite clean. There was a good hot plate and copper sufficient for the 200 of us (100 Canadians and 100 Bines).
There was a good long concert hall and a piano. We later had many an enjoyable show here of which I took an active part as compere.
The job proved to be a construction job. They were building a new Round House and R.R. Yard. It was to be the largest in Europe when completed. And to be used as a distributing centre for the products from the Ukraine. Many construction companies were working on the contract.
The P.O.W.s were mostly employed as unskilled labourers on excavation work for bridges and cement tunnels and subways. Some helped to lay new track and switches, others made large fill-ins, unloaded cement and gravel for the concrete work. Helped to lay the telegraph lines, build air raid shelters, etc. A few worked later as bricklayers and carpenters.
The whole of the project was being done by conscripted labour. Us, Poles and Ukrainians. The Germans only were in supervision as engineers and meisters. A large number of Ukrainian women were employed. They were doing the same type of work as we were doing but worked much harder.
There was little machinery used, most of the work was being done by hand. Dirt for fills was of course dug by steam shovel and hauled in small trains and skips. The rest was pick(axe) and shovel. The cement pouring on the firm “Berlin” was done by quite modern machines. This was quite interesting. They poured the long cement tunnels and trestles. Tons of gravel and sand were unloaded on a high level by hand. This formed large piles of material at a height above the construction going on. Cement was unloaded down a long shoot into sheds at a lower level near the mixers and the project. When the pouring was started it never stopped till the form was filled. We worked for 12 hrs on a shift then the Poles would relieve us. When the job was completed we got a few days off for rest. The pouring went something like this. The gravel and sand was shoveled independently onto conveyor belts which in turn conveyed it to separate hoppers. Tracks for skips ran under the hoppers. Also tracks for skips ran into the cement shed. These tracks ran to the mixer. You pushed the skips about by hand. Each man had a special job. Under the hoppers were weighing contraptions for dumping a certain quantity of gravel into the skips. You pushed your skip under the gravel hopper and get a measurement of gravel, then the same procedure under the sand hopper. Now you were away for the cement mixer. Cement had arrived on a small flat car also. A large power scoop (part of the machine lies beside the small track in a hole. You tip your gravel into it, a fellow throws in a couple bags of cement. The man on the machine pulls a lever and up it goes into the large revolving mixer, he pulls another lever and in goes a quantity of water, down comes the scoop again for the next load while that batch is mixing, he pushes another lever and the rotating mixing drum reverses and out comes the ready mixed concrete into a shoot on the other side of the machine. The chute goes into a hopper. The cement mixer is set over a dug out in which is a large electric driven pump. From this pump a large iron pipe runs to where the cement is being poured into the forms. This pipe is composed of short lengths very strong and put together with clamps. The cement in the hopper is forced by the pumps through the pipe, around corners, up slopes and down slopes to the farms, where more men spread it about and tamp it into place.
If the machine stops, the cement must not be left in the pipe so they quickly knock one of the pipe clamps off and take out a length of pipe close to the machine. A large paper plug made of wet cement bags is shoved into the pipe, an air tight connection is clamped on to the pipe again and compressed air turned into it. Then out comes all the cement from the pipeline, everyone waits in expectancy, all of a sudden out comes the paper wad with a bang from the end of the pipe. It reminds you of a cannon and everyone cheers.
At first I went to work on the job, we worked from 7 till about 4:30 with 1 hr for noon. Then one day when we were moving a conveyor I got my foot under the wheel, and smashed my foot. However no bones were broken and I got three weeks off altogether. It however still hurt me to wear my boot. So I got a job on the lager staff till we left 578.
When I had my foot hurt the Jerrys treated me quite well I was carried in to the lager on a stretcher. The British Medical Officer who was on a party E1 in Laband came and looked at me. He sent me to Hindenburg the next day on a stretcher. We went by train and I was taken to a large civilian hospital where the nursing sisters x-rayed my foot. There were no bones broken so I didn’t stay. The next day they took me to the Stabs Artz who gave me my required time of excused duty. While my foot was healing I caught up on my sleeping, played the mandolin and read. I even would hobble over to the shoe shop and help Smoke mend a few pairs of shoes.
At first my job on the staff was merely as a cleaner around the lager. One day Jack Cook the fireman had an argument with the Sgt. so I was put on his job. I got to be the lagers no.1 right hand man. Then my days routine went something like this. 4:30 A.M. Reveille. I got up and dressed. About 5 I had the hot plate with a good fire in it. Also a good full copper of boiling water for the boys morning brew. I had a wash then and put a few of my friends pots on the stove and would prepare my muckers breakfast. Coffee, porridge and toast. Being in the lager I was always chief cook, Red Cross quartermaster and cig(arette) store man. We always managed to keep a good supply of groceries on hand. I could always get a loaf when I wanted it. After breakfast I sometimes took a snooze. The lager vetraunsman always counted me if I was asleep. On re-arising I would go and wash the breakfast dishes, perhaps there was a drop of coffee left to warm up. Then I would clean up my stove, sweep the yard, gather the rubbish up, and have my freestick. Sometimes with George, Smoke or Harry and Len. Then we would haul out the rubbish and get a load of coal. Then I would have a shower and put on clean clothes, all ready to go for the noon soup. This usually consisted of spuds, a very small portion of meat and a ladle of gravy. Spuds were 500 grams. We went outside the compound to the kitchen to draw the soup. The cooks were German Women. They also cooked for the Ukrainian girls who lived in a lager adjacent to ours. Frau Webber, a middle aged good looking jovial lady, ran the kitchen and gave us our rations. Myself with one of the staff gave out the soup, (sometimes it was semolina or porridge as a change) while Sgt Pedigrew and Reg Sherwood opened the Red Cross Store. Then I would go and have a bite to eat, usually bread and jam, with my muckers who had arrived on the scene and prepared lunch. After dinner I would have a short nap until the parties had gone out to work. Then we would go and draw the bread and margarine. Bread was about 400 grams. During the day I had to keep the fires stoked. So between all these jobs I was kept quite busy. I always cooked the evening meal, usually of fried spuds, meat roll or bully beef and perhaps an egg and if we had the ingredients Apple pie, and coffee and bread. In the evening I would play the mandolin or sit around the compound with the boys and watch people go by. Maybe we would have rehearsal for the next show. We always had an evening brew before role call with a couple of Canadian Biscuits. In the Red Cross Store we had thousands of Fags so we could buy anything we wished, extra Red Cross food, clothes or jackets. While evening Roll call was going on I would bank my fire up and have a wash before being counted and locked up. I lived in the staff hut so we could have lights on as long as we wished. It was nice and quiet so we could go to bed early if we wished to.
July 7, 1943
It was in this lager that I saw my first Allied Aircraft over Germany. They never bombed near us but just far enough away so that we could hear the bombs and A.A. When our local guns opened up we got in the trenches as oft time shrapnel fell in the compound. The big bombers would pass directly over us. How grand they looked and sounded. The raids were over Hydelbreck and Bleckhammer the Leaniest as large plants were situated there (Benzine factories). Appeln and Baiten also were objectives.
The alarm usually went about eleven. Soon after we would see the familiar vapour trails in the sky of the Pathfinder planes as they led in the flights and marked out the target. Then we would see the puffs of Anti aircraft going up and hear the drone of hundreds of mortars. Perhaps they would come into the right angle for the sunlight and we could see them shining slivery as diamonds in the sky. How our hearts leaped and our faces beamed. Then came the death destructive rumble and our faces would grim abit as after all perhaps hundreds of people, quite innocent and as war weary as us were being killed. After the all clear had gone the sky would be streaked once more by a couple of fast planes. This meant that soon down would be dropping hundreds of leaflets. Then the civilians would be dashing here and there collecting them. It was forbidden to read them, they must be turned into the police. The guards got some but not one fell in our lager never. However the old undercover system usually brought one in the next day or so. These raids occurred about once a week. Few planes were shot down. Later the raids occurred at night-time also and we would have to go into the trenches. In the fall and winter they came nearly every day and more frequent in the evenings.
Thus life went on at E578. We got our mail and parcels from home regularly. The boys got on better with the work and by working on quota were not obliged to go out after dinner. Finally in September we were told that we would move to another lager in the same place to join the working party there. It was a bigger lager but not quite so clean and convenient as we were now a larger party known as E749. The job stayed the same however. I still retained a staff job as fireman but decided to go out working in October as the boys were doing much less work outside than I inside.
November 1st the Red Cross stopped but John, George, Jim and I had twenty two thousand cigs on hand, so we still lived as well as before with the rackets between us and the Poles. “All for the good of the Poles”, as we would say to Punya Duda. We ate pie or cake every night with plenty of wurst, eggs, beef, pork, flap jacks, rabbit, chicken, turkey, etc. Sgt. Major Burton was a good scrounger in these days so we had good rations from the cook house. Lots of extras such as milk and fresh vegetables.
Xmas showed you what the cigs could do for Can. P.O.W.s. Xmas Eve we had a variety show run on the Amateur Contest plan. It was highly successful with plenty of Canadian cig prizes. We got ½ an invalid parcel per man, for xmas only. But Ted Welton and Mac Moby with us four put up a Christmas dinner with these things on the menu. “Roast Goose” with “onion stuffing and English meat roll”. “Rich brown Gravy”, “Mashed potatoes”, “Creamed carrots and Green Peas”, “Pickled Onions”, “Tea” and “White Buns”. “Chocolate Cake”, Our own Home made Fruit cake, “Apple Pie”, “Table Wine and Cigars”.
Xmas night we had an old time dance with plenty of beer. Our band or should I say Hoot’s Band supplied the music for the square dancing. Hoots on the squeeze box. Paddy Grogan on the violin, Lasard drumming and Joe Trudea and myself on mandolins.
After Xmas work was easier, events leading up to the occupation of Ober Salesia by the Russians probably had a bearing on it. We worked shift work, morning and afternoon alternatively. The quota was small. We were always in the lager by 10:30 in the morning. After dinner we worked from 1 till 4. Red Cross was again coming after the New Year (1/2 parcel per man) so we lived like Kings. Plenty of baked beans and puddings extra to what I have hitherto mentioned. Jan 20 was my last morning’s work. On the 22 we evacuated.
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