The Answer – Justice
An Australian Prisoner of War and Witness in the Small Fortress, Terezin Concentration Camp, in 1945
Excerpts from the autobiography of Alexander McClelland (1920-2010)
McClelland relates some of his experiences as a Prisoner of War in various camps. One of the most notable reports is of the suicide attempts by downed RAF aircrew. He also gives an amusing account of his group becoming separated from their guard while visiting Berlin for medical treatment. An all-Australian squadron in England planned to take off to Australia in their planes.
It was still bitterly cold with snow on the ground and food was short. The food had been better in the hospital. Some of the chaps said, “You get better food on the working party,” so I decided to go on the working party. As we went out through the main gates the guards didn’t search us too well, and snow was blowing in every direction. It was a hell of a day but we got on a train and went to a place somewhere in the middle of town where we were put in a two-storey building.
I had only been there two or three days when lung trouble struck at me again. I was very ill. I didn’t eat and didn’t know much about what was happening. But one vague memory was a South African who was luckily on this working camp, and he was saying, it drifted through to me, “I tell you this Australian is very ill. He will die.” The Jewish interpreter, said, “He is not ill, he is only malingering.” Most of the Prisoner of War camps had Jewish interpreters which was a soft job. They didn’t have to work at all. I vaguely saw a face swimming in front of me and it was the German Feldwebel in charge of the camp. The South African said, “If you let this Australian die, when the International Red Cross people come here, or your commanding officer, I will tell them you believed this Jew, and not me, a South African.” This convinced the German who was in charge of the working camp. I don’t remember much more. When I came to I was back in the hospital at Lamsdorf. (pp. 79-80)
During my second period in hospital I was aware of the amazing case of Michael, a Polish boy who had cancer of the stomach. I don’t know how he came to be there, but Colonel Slater the surgeon, according to the chaps who watched the operation, cut out a while washing-up basin-full of his intestines and sewed him up again. The amazing thing was that he survived, and used to wander around all over the hospital. He didn’t speak any English but he had a smile from ear to ear, so grateful to be alive, and everyone treated him the best they could. He used to eat vast quantities of sauerkraut, which some of the fellows didn’t like to Mike ate it. If there was anything left Mike ate it.
At that time also Slater was the first man to do a mastoid operation inside the ear instead of cutting a hole behind it. This had the German surgeons completely bamboozled and when they found the technique to be successful they immediately whisked Slater off to Berlin to show the German doctors there how it was done. The Germans always respected any advance in technology. They had a saying, “Always forward,” and they carried it out in everyday life. All I can say is that if it hadn’t been for men like Slater there would have been a lot of Australians, New Zealanders and English who would never have seen the war through. The second spell in hospital was a long time and the snow had gone, and spring had gone, and we were in summer about June when they told me to get off my backside and go to the Main Camp, Lamsdorf.
I left Alan Dickens at the Hospital. He wasn’t quite so well as I but we were both told that we would be put on the repatriation list. Allan Dickens was repatriated later during WWII, but died of TB in 1947. I was put in a special barrack at Lamsdorf and it was next door to the Palestine or Jewish barrack. In 1941 the British Army in North Africa had used Palestinians, some Jews, some Arabs, to work on the docks, loading and unloading ships in Alexandria and Tobruk, Pireas in Greece and in Souda Bay, Crete, and of course they were prisoners of war too. I didn’t like the repatriation barracks I was in. It was very depressing. There was one chap there who was blind and there were amputation cases and men who should have been sent back home, but there had been no repatriation yet and that seemed to be a long way off in our minds then.
When I had been taken into Hospital the second time I had had cigarettes and clothing with me, a few personal belongings, that every POW had precious to him. I could use cigarettes for bartering with civilians to buy food and help fill my stomach. I was rather shocked that when I asked for my cigarettes and other stuff back, “Aussie,” they said, “they’re not here now. Well, we dug a hole for you. You were dead, mate. You were technically unable to live. The blood count was all wrong.” Then I remembered the jelly in my crotch and under my arms.
It was all a hazy period in my life. I had been very ill. Anyhow, the cigarettes and clothing were gone. I was put back with these men who should have been repatriated. It was so depressing. One blind fellow received a letter from his girlfriend who didn’t know he was blind. The chaps used to read the letters for him. This letter started off, “Dear” so and so, “I am going out with a real man, an American. He isn’t a man to surrender himself to the Germans.” What could the bloke who was reading the letter say? So he just held it up and everyone know what was in it, it was a ‘Dear John’ letter. So he said, “She’s marvellous, everything’s all right” and made up a letter out of his mind. It was typical of many letters I personally saw and the common factor was always an American. (pp. 80-81)
The final thing that persuaded me was the leaflet the Russians dropped by plane before Christmas about their allies. “The Russian soldiers are fighting the German soldiers at the front, but the Americans and British bomb defenceless women and children in Germany.” I knew something was terribly wrong. (Christmas 1944, p.112)
Things seemed to happen quite quickly at this stage. Either our people were sending more bombers over Germany or the Germans were shooting more down, I didn’t know which at the time. There was one fellow pushed in through the gates, an RAF pilot, and he was a bad case. He was mumbling. All he could say was, “We didn’t know, they didn’t tell us, we didn’t know, they didn’t tell us” and he kept harping on and on until the fellows saw the barrack Commander and said, “For God’s sake, get that bloody RAF bloke out of here. He’s driving us mad!”
We quizzed the guard and found out that this bloke had been one of two pilots who had been shot down on a large bombing raid and it appeared that both of them had been taken through the city they had bombed. They were both so badly shocked that one of them had jumped in front of a train on his way from there to Lamsdorf and the other was this bloke who kept muttering all the time. The barrack Commander knew that something would happen if he didn’t act, so he got him out quick and up to Lamsdorf Hospital. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but he was just the tip of the iceberg as far as RAF crews that came into that camp.
A day or two later they brought in another chap who sat on a bench and just stared into space. They tried to talk and get through to him, because there had been cases of Airforce chaps in particular who could not cope with the fact that they weren’t flying. We nicknamed them the Blue Orchids because they were such a rare thing in Northern Africa, Greece and Crete. In the army you lived like an animal on the ground, lived in holes and survived, but in the Airforce they had pretty WAAFS waiting on them and sheets on their beds and then they are flying in a beautiful plane in the nice clean sky and then – bang. They would have come from a flaming plane, possibly the only survivor and would have lost all their mates to find themselves alone in a hostile environment in Germany, in A POW camp too and amongst army people. Very upsetting for them I suppose.
We had seen several attempts by RAF men to kill themselves by climbing over the warning wire about fifteen feet inside the main fence, and as everyone knew the guards had orders to shoot anyone between the warning wire and the fence. No one went over that wire. Occasionally, when the chaps were running after a ball and it went over this wire they would signal to the guard in the tower and the guard would very closely watch them as they walked over to get it. However I never saw any cold-blooded shooting down of prisoners, and in all the time I was a POW in Germany I never heard the Germans calling us sweinhunds. (p. 87-88)
The usual two blokes carrying the soup came into our barrack. Being wintertime the light inside was very poor. One bloke let out a yell, “Christ, I’ve got a rat.” A few late P.O.W. arrivals did not finish their soup ration. I did. General opinion was “Lucky bastard, he got the meat.”
A couple of days later another Australian was brought in. I saw him come through the gate, so I thought, “I will go and have a talk with him and see if there’s any further news of anything outside.” This bloke wouldn’t talk at all. He just didn’t want to talk, and we thought this was one of the shock cases. We just kept talking to him and the other fellows drifted off and I was left on my own with him. “What is it, what’s bugging you, mate?” He looked me in the eyes and I’ll never forget the look in those eyes. There was hatred, bitterness, but mostly bitterness. He said, “Well, you want to know it.”
He said there had been an all-Australian Lancaster squadron in England. “We were a good team. The Japanese are romping all over South East Asia so we planned, instead of one night going on a bombing raid to Germany, we would fly on to the Middle East and eventually bomb the Japs. So the only way we could think to do it was to take the whole squadron of planes.” Well, a couple of days before they were due to take off for Australia with the Lancasters orders came round for their crews to be split up amongst English squadrons. He and his mate, who was a pilot, were sent to this one particular squadron and there was no chance of getting away because the idea of getting back to Australia to bomb the Japanese was finished, kaput, as the Germans say. (p. 89)
A day or so later my name was called out and I was told I had to go into Berlin to the hospital where they were going to look at my lungs. There was a group of six of us with one guard, and we had to change trains halfway. The trains were very overcrowded. It was quite difficult and during our first stop on the way to Berlin a funny thing happened. The guard was left outside with a couple of the chaps when the train pulled out. There were about four of us in the carriage and off we went to Frederikstrasse Station without the guard. We got off there and waited for him. We were dressed in British uniform so how could we escape from the heart of Nazi Germany? We didn’t stand a chance.
As we waited there a group of high-ranking German officers came along. You could tell by the collars on their overcoats. They were talking and looking our way and one of our blokes said, “What if w capture them all, win the war, then we’ll be heroes!” and another guy said, “Yes, dead heroes if you touch that mob. They look like top brass.” I had remembered some of the English Top Brass we had seen in Tobruk and these were the equivalent.
As we stood there waiting for the train and our guard to come, one of the officers came across and in perfect English said, “Excuse me gentlemen, where is your guard?” We looked at him and one of us said, “We’re waiting for the guard,” and you could see the smile starting to creep onto his face, “He couldn’t get on the train so we’re waiting for him here. We come from Genshagen and we’re going to Frederikstrasse Hospital.” He smiled and said, “Thank you,” and went back and told his friends who thought it was a huge joke. The next train arrived about half an hour later and out stepped the other two POWs with the German guard. By this time the top-ranking officers had disappeared. (pp. 102-103)
Shortly after the fire, in October 1944, planes would come over at night, just single planes like the single British planes which used to fly over the Black Forest in ‘41 dropping leaflets. These planes dropped leaflets, too. We were able to recover a few of them. They were written in German and they bluntly stated that the Russian solders fight the German soldiers at the front, not like the capitalists, Great Britain [and] America, who bombed defenceless German women and children in their homes at night. (p. 109)
As was usual before we went to bed all of us Aussies and New Zealanders, about twelve of us, used to go over and have a shower. One good thing about this camp [Bismarkhutte], there was always plenty of coal and therefore heat because it was in a coal mining area. We would stoke up the square fires in the barrack rooms until they were red hot and they used to keep the rooms hot enough until the next morning. Every night we made a practice of doing this and consequently there was plenty of hot water at 10 o’clock at night and it was so good to have a hot shower every evening. I don’t know why the other Brits didn’t do this. Most of them didn’t have a bath in their homes and we thought this rather surprising because every house in Australia and New Zealand had a bath and a shower. Of course the climate is hot there and you do have to bathe or you end up with all sorts of skin problems. So, we would go over and quite often the guards would sing out, “What are you doing?” “We’re cleaning,” and they would say, “That is good.” All of them knew that while the POWs kept themselves clean there would be no typhus, but as soon as they started to neglect themselves there would be an outbreak of it. Typhus used to break out among under-nourished people. It comes from nowhere and then they get it like at Lamsdorf in the winters of ‘41 and ‘42 among the Russian POWs. (p.110)
By this time whichever way you looked, in front or behind, there was one continuous stream of prisoners of war, Russian and British, heading towards Czechoslovakia. It was a long day for us. We made several stops, squatting in the snow on the side of the road, and after marching quite a distance we finally arrived at a village. We were out of the sound of the gunfire by then, and they bedded us down for the night in barns. We did get something to eat. it wasn’t a four-course meal but we were thankful for the small amount of hot food in our stomachs. It was quite warm sleeping in the hay in the barns.
The next morning they roused us early and we were back on the road. It was the same as the previous day. Far ahead, and back along the road as far as you cold see, was just one continuous line of POWs, guarded by a few elderly German soldiers, and men who had been badly wounded, men who weren’t front line troops, guiding us in the direction of Czechoslovakia. That night we stopped in another barn and followed the same procedure as on the previous night. It was quite cold, and a damn sight worse for the guards outside than it was for us inside the barn. We all huddled together in the hay and it was quite warm even thought we didn’t get much to eat.
The third day began the same way as the two previous days. By this time we were nearing the foothills of the mountains of Sudetenland. During the morning after several stops and starts we were hated near a bunch of Russians. There was a circle of about fifteen of them and the guard was ranting and raving and then he turned to us and said, “What can I do? You tell the British to march and they march, animals I can drive. But what can I do with these Russians? If they don’t move I’ll end up getting sent to the Russian Front” (which by that time was only a few miles away). So he turned back to the Russians and said, “If you don’t go I’ll shoot you!” They just looked at him. They understood as much German as we did. He was desperate and we felt a bit sorry for him in a way because what could he do?
Still they didn’t move. I couldn’t believe my ears or eyes, because there was a shot, and the Russian on the far side fell backwards with a hole just above his eyes. several of the Russians got up and loped off, but most of them just sat there as if nothing had happened. I suppose the Russians had a better idea what would happen to them than we did, so they thought they might as well die there and then. Poor devils, we felt sorry for them.
The Germans marched us off very quickly from this, and I decided then that I was going to get away from the column. I was worried all the time remembering that the people in France retreating to Dunkirk had been continually strafed by the German Airforce. I remembered Greece too, and the strafing on the roads there from dawn till dark. I couldn’t understand why Russian planes weren’t over strafing us now. But there were no German convoys on the roads we were on, just POWs going one way. Everyone was heading the one way to Czechoslovakia. In a way it made sense not to waste any ammunition because the Germans had to feed the POWs. They were desperately short of food themselves, even the guards didn’t get a decent meal, and the British POWs got as much as the Germans. They were Saxons and we were Anglo-Saxons and we should never have been fighting against them, but the war had been going on for six years and it was coming to a finale. (pp. 113-114)
After the Kommandant had inspected the Americans he stood at the corner of the corridor and said, “You men have caused us a lot of trouble. We’re putting you in a place where you will cause us no further trouble.” None of us liked the sound of that; it sounded rather ominous. Then he turned round and marched off. (p.122)
The Answer – Justice was originally published by HRP in 1998 with an incorrect ISBN. In 2013 it was renotified with a valid ISBN, 978-1-901240-23-8.