My Father’s Escape (by Kim Greaves)
My father was a P.O.W. in Stalag VIII B- Lamsdorf for three years before rumours began to circulate that ‘the Russians were coming’.
The Germans were planning to move their captives west.
My father, Stanley Gleonard Greaves (“Glen”), and three others from his hut decided that they would attempt an escape at this time. They hid in the false ceiling of the showerhouse and slept there for the night.
The Germans called a parade and had all the other POW’s up in the middle of the night. In the morning, they all left the camp. They were marched out by the Germans. As the Germans left they peppered each hut with a round of machine gun fire.
One of my father’s companions then got down out of the ceiling to go back to his bunk to get something he had forgotten. He was caught by two “Steigers” who saw where he had come from. My father and his other two companions had to come down as well.
The Steigers put the four men in a hut. One of my father’s companions spoke German fluently. He told the Steigers, “We have lots of friends coming to help us. You’d better let us go.” They were frightened and let them leave .
The four men hid in a big ‘dip’ in the ground.
They had prearranged with a Polish civilian friend from the mines to come and get them. He arrived and took two of the escapees away with him first. They were to hide in his house. He then returned to get my father and his companion “Red”.
My father and Red were taken to the house of a very old Polish woman. She had a trap door in her bedroom floor, with a carpet and a chair over it. The two escapees had to hide in this secret compartment twice when German soldiers came ‘screaming up the passage’. The soldiers questioned the woman and “roughed her up”, but she didn’t tell them anything. The old woman would have been shot by the Germans had they found she was harbouring POW’s.
The elderly Polish woman insisted that the two soldiers sleep in her bed, whilst she slept on two chairs that she pushed together.
At about one o’clock in the morning their Polish hostess awoke the two men, saying, “Russke!” They looked out the window and saw what my father described as a ‘fat Mongolian’ walking up the road. My father and his three companions presented themselves to the Russians.
Five Russian Private-Majors came to the house where my father and Red had been hiding. Three of them had drinks, but two had guns and no drinks. Red offered them a drink of Schnapps, which was knocked out of his hand. A Polish woman picked it up.
The Russian soldiers then took my father and Red and their two fellow escapees with them. The old Polish hostess cried as they left. The four were pushed through the streets in the dark, all the while being poked with bayonets, until they reached a big house. There they were surrounded by Russian soldiers. Were they just curious or did they want to kill them?
They were asked, “Do you speak English?” They were taken to some Russian officers (Generals?) and questioned by an interpreter. Finally the Russians were satisfied that my father and his companions were British and not German.
The Russians advised the four POW’s that they should go to Krakow , and that they would escort them part way. They said to meet them at the big house in the morning.
My father and his three friends went back to their Polish friend’s house and were given beds for the night.
During the night, two Russian officers knocked on the door. They wanted to come in and ‘party’ with the best Schnapps in the house. My father and the other escapees, the Russian officers, and the Poles in the house stayed up late, drinking Schnapps and singing songs. One of the Russians quoted Shakespeare in Russian. My father said that Red had a great singing voice.
The group stayed up very late and got up early. My father and his companions thanked their Polish saviours and returned to the big house they had been to in the early hours of the morning.
The Russians had German prisoners. My father felt sorry for them. The Russians detested the Germans.
The Russians and their German prisoners and my father and the three other POW’s began their trek. At one point, the group came to a crossroads. There was a Russian soldier doing traffic duty there. This soldier held his rifle by the barrel and swung it hard, hitting one of the German prisoners on the head. The prisoner fell down.
A guard pushed the attacker back. He then had the two prisoners on either side of the victim drag him along in the snow. (Many years later when my father developed dementia from numerous small strokes, he began ‘obsessing’ about this incident. It then became apparent that the victim was only a sixteen year old boy. I believe my father felt guilty for not helping him, but he was terrified of the Russians. He was only twenty-three himself.)
The group stopped for the night and had some food. In the morning, my father and the others were left on their own to make their way to Krakow . They had no money and had to depend on the kindness of Polish strangers for food and shelter. They knocked on doors and civilians let them stay all along their way. “The Poles were wonderful!” according to my father.
They saw numerous battle scenes on their way to Krakow . Dead horses,
dead men, and tanks, all lightly covered with snow.
As they went through one village, some women called them. It was difficult to communicate because of language barriers, but they finally understood that they were to come to their house. There they met a partisan band and were questioned in Polish by a man who then said, “I’m a Scotchman.”
They were then able to get a ride on the back of a truck to Krakow with this lost Scot.
They arrived in Krakow and were waiting outside the Russian headquarters there. A woman came up to them and said, “Do you speak English?” She was the wife of a former British Consul. This woman took my father and his companions to her home. It was lovely! They had a Hungarian goulash dinner by candlelight. She gave them some sort of tangerine liqueur that gave my father a ‘soft, dreamy glow’.
The four men were fairly clean by then, as they had been able to wash
at people’s homes along the way.
The woman arranged for them to stay the night with her brother and his wife. They were Polish and had two sons. The next day the brother took them to some Turkish Baths. They cleaned themselves up thoroughly.
My father stayed with this same family for approximately four to six weeks. In the meantime there was a curfew to abide by. Other POW’s kept straggling into the city during this time, until there were enough of them to put them on a train to Odessa in the Ukraine . When they arrived in Odessa, there was a British boat waiting in the harbour. Before the POW’s were allowed on the boat, they had to be ‘fumigated’. They were taken to a place where there were a lot of women behind a counter. The men had to take all their clothes off. The women were laughing at them and slapping their backsides. The men showered and had their clothes fumigated.
My father especially remembered a very beautiful female Russian officer. He said she wore an ‘ Astrakhan ’ (lambskin) hat, and looked like an ad for Russian vodka. She picked her way calmly through all the naked bodies to speak to a fellow at the counter and she was standing right next to my father. All my father’s mates were hooting and hollering at him in English to ‘do something unmentionable’ to her.
The British had sent food on the boat for the men. The boat traveled through the Bosporus and on to stop in Port Said in Egypt at the north end of the Suez Canal . The ship then carried on to Liverpool . The men were then taken to a camp in Buckinghamshire.
My father’s family lived in Marlowe which is in Buckinghamshire. My father was told not to go home, but he got his things and walked out. He went to an ‘off-line’(?) close by and completed some forms, and was told it was OK to go home. His Mother and Father and sisters were overjoyed to see him!