I was going through some old photo albums the other day when I came across some photographs of my father Fusilier George Robert Huntley, ‚A‘ company, 7th Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and an accompanying typed story written by him in 1947 for a local newspaper describing his escape from a column of POW’s in the hellish winter of 1944 while they were marched from their camp in Poland back into Germany in the face of the Soviet advance. The story of many of these marches from various Stalags can be read in The Last Escape by John Nichol and Tony Renell, Penguin publication.
As you will see my father was taken at St Valery France in 1940 where his vickers machine gun company was attached to the 51st Highland division, I’ll leave it to him to say the rest:
Copy of George Robert Huntley’s (Fusilier 7thBattalion Northumberland Fusiliers) account of his escape from captivity in 1945.
It was dinner time on the 17th of February 1945 when we were informed by the guards that we were to pack our kit and march to Danzig. There were 19 of us, all English P.O.W’s, in this working party in a village called Trampken, which lay 15 miles from Danzig in the Polish corridor. We had been expecting this move for some time now, for each night now I had been getting the news from a wireless in a German civilian house. The Russians were now round Koingsburg and were sweeping down in our direction, and according to my calculations they must be about 50 miles from where we were now gathered.
We took with us only the bare necessities, throwing everything else away. I fastened a pair of army braces onto my kitbag and filled it with bread, raw bacon left overs from my last Red-Cross parcel, spare underclothes, a razor and a towel. About 7 that same evening we arrived at the English prison camp called Stoltzenburgh in Danzig. There we found hundreds of English prisoners already camped down and every few minutes more arrived from outside working parties. I well remember that night; the smell of cooking filled the air for miles round as the boys bloated themselves with food from the Red-Cross parcels which had been issued from the stocks held at Stoltzenburgh for Lord knows how long. The next morning we all lined up in the black dark and stood in the freezing cold for three hours as the Germans counted and re-counted us a score of times before they finally reached agreement as to how may we were. Then, off we marched, “to the safety of the Third Reich”, as the Jerries put it. The only information we could get from them was that we would be returning as soon as the Third Reich had thrown out the Russian savages. Our howls of laughter were received with black scowls and threats of a hole in the head.
The march was somewhat in keeping with an army on the move. We marched an hour and then had ten minutes rest. Some four and a half years ago I had been a reluctant member of another such march, one that was still green in my memory, when, as a newly taken prisoner of war, I had marched from St.Valery into Germany, and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t do that again, and that just as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I’d be out of this rabble. The Russians were an unknown factor; true we had heard plenty of propaganda from the Germans and believe me it wasn’t any too good, but then we had just served four and a half years under them and they hadn’t bee angels either. Anyway, I was ready to take the risk. Marching along I outlined a plan to my friend and ‘mucker’ Ted Hall, who had been by my side from the earliest days throughout my whole ‘Kriegy’ life and, without whom, I would not go.
“You must be raving mad” Said Ted “We’d never get 100 yards. Then he laughed and said “Right, let’s go”.
We must have looked suspicious to our friends from our old working party, a few of the boys had got wind of the plan and out of nineteen, nine were willing to make a break for it. On each side of us was a forest, which stretched for miles along the road and at the next halt, when we were all flopped out on the snow resting in two’s and three’s, we made for the wood as casually as we knew how. The guards looked suspiciously at us, but we explained that we were making calls of nature, so they nodded their heads. It was a very dense forest, black dark, only the snow gave it light. Ted and I were well to the fore and, having done our business as slowly as possible we dived through the trees and ran like hell, the rest careering madly behind us. The shouts and curses of the guards, the shots around, lent speed to our feet; the trees making perfect cover. We were all wearing great-coats and balaclavas and each of is carried a bag of some sort holding all our worldly possessions so the sweat was teaming from me, my lungs felt as though they would burst and our feet were sinking into the untrampled snow but God how we ran. All seemed to be going well until we suddenly came upon a clearing which dropped down abruptly to a railway track, with another steep climb up the other side; before we could reach once more, the safety of the trees. There was no time even to curse our luck. With a cry, “Come on lads”, I led the way. We scrambled on our backsides, bumping and sliding, with the Dixie tins in our packs making a helluva din. Crash, we all hit the rail lines at much the same time. With the yells behind us getting closer, we tore up the other side like mountaineers. Wild incoherent thoughts flashed through my mind as I made my way up the slope, ‘it will be my fault if someone gets knocked off’, ‘we shouldn’t have let them come’, ‘we’ll never make it’ and then we were at the top, with bullets flashing around us. Gathering up the last breath we dived for the cover of the trees. For some reason the Germans gave up the chase there, and with one accord we sank down in the snow and tried to regain our wind. Within five minutes Ted had us rounded up, and quietly and soberly, we nine Englishmen made our way through the dark and dismal forest, free for the first time in four and a half years.
After marching for about three kilos we dug ourselves into the snow and there discussed our future plans. We agreed to travel north east to try to cross over the front line. Two of the lads wanted to go back to the village where we had worked as prisoners and there to hide with the German civvies until the Russians turned up. Up till now the Russians had been driving thirty kilos a day and we had fond hopes of being picked up within a week at the very outside, allowing for any hitches in our plans. However these two thought this just too good to be true and they decided to go back to the village, so we shook hands and wished them the best of luck. That left seven of us to stumble through waist deep snow; I don’t think we made three kilos by dawn that next morning, so we agreed that in future we must run the risk of being seen and to travel by daylight, resting at night. In the distance we could hear the guns thumping away, a noise that kept up our spirits, for where there was gunfire there we knew we’d find the Russians. We were shuffling single file along an old track when a crisp command of “Halt” rang out. Every man Jack froze to the spot. I turned my head and saw a couple of Germans holding automatic rifles standing behind a tree. “What are you doing here” shouted one. I replied that we had lost our way from a party of prisons who were heading for Germany. They didn’t seem to believe us but were saved the bother of doing anything about it by the arrival of four more Germans accompanied by a sergeant. Quickly they lined us up and marched us half a mile to a clearing where there were three dugouts. We were taken inside an officer swung round from a telephone and looked at us, “What are you Englander or French”. Englander we said. I stuck to the story that we were prisoners temporarily parted from our party because two of us were lame. “Ha”, he snorted, “The whole blasted front is in a mix up, what am I supposed to do with you lot”. Ted spoke up, “If you have any boiling water we’ll have a cup of cocoa and something to eat”. The Jerries laughed at the sheer cheek of this remark and shared with us the steaming hot cocoa. Over this cuppa we asked the Captain what he was going to do with us and asked if he hadn’t a truck to send us up to the main party. 2Get a truck” he yelled, “Even if I had a truck and even if I was going to let you numbskulls have it, where the hell would I get the petrol”. What he did do was to ring up H.Q. and ask for orders concerning us, and was told to send us up to the main road where we would be picked up and transported to the main party, who were 20 Kilos ahead. The Jerries wouldn’t spare any guards to come with us and so sent us on our way fully expecting us to do as we had been told. I suppose they though we’d rather have their company than the Russians. Hardly believing our luck, we made our way about two miles down the main road and then headed off once more due N.E into the forest. This time we were wiser men, and marched along in couples at spaces of thirty yards, so that if the first two were challenged the rest could either help or disappear, so saving some from capture. So once again we were free to make our own decisions. All that day we marched through the woods, at night time we dare not light a fire so ate rations cold and slept together huddled up for warmth. God it was cold, the snow as we lay kept on thawing and long before dawn we were all stamping about trying to bring the circulation back to our frozen joints. We knew it was no good trying to sleep again so talking in whispers we waited impatiently for the first light. As soon as we could see where we were we started off at a crisp rate, all day long we kept it up and by nightfall we reckoned we had covered from twelve to fifteen kilos. The only thing that worried us was the thought of having to spend another night in that cold perishing snow, so we decided to look out for somewhere, anywhere to sleep, instead of trying to avoid buildings which might house Germans.
By now we were following a small river and heading deeper into the forest. Towards late afternoon we saw smoke in the distance and on moving closer we saw a small shack built into the side of a cliff. I crept up quietly and saw a small man come out with a chopping axe. “Definitely a Pole” I said, and Ted agreed. We called out to him and he walked over. Speaking German, he asked if we were English, and on our reply that this was so, he laughed and beckoned us to follow him into the shack. Imagine our surprise when we got there to find five other prisoners whom we had known before. We had plenty to talk about of course; they informed us that Peg-leg was a black marketer, and that he had a wireless hidden, from which he got the news every night. Our hopes sagged as they told us that the Russians were practically at a standstill, but we soon cheered up when our bellies were filled with large helpings of potato soup. Peg-leg said we could all stay on for a while and we decided to accept this offer, it would give us time to regain our strength and to be honest, we felt secure for the first time for years and were loath to leave. We knew Peg-leg couldn’t feed us all on his meagre ration, so with help and guidance we raided the farms and houses for miles around. We split up in pairs, with Edward and I together as usual, and it became a matter of pride and honour as to who would bring back the most swag. Tame rabbits were kept by nearly every German Family and I am afraid these soon disappeared. Eggs, hens, pigs, bread, potatoes anything and everything we could lay our hands on we stole and pretty soon the whole district was wondering just who was among them. We heard from various visitors who were strange and varied, they included Frenchmen, Russians, Germans and Poles, that our activities were blamed on the partisans. All good things come to an end and as Peg-leg informed us, we felt it was time to leave. Our last night was spent in pinching a cow and cooking it. Next morning, our bellies and kit bags full of good meat, we went on our way. We had already decided to split from the company, it being safer that way, and Ted and I were on our own again.
That night we spent in an old woman’s farm and it was there, that I took cramp. Cramp seems too easy a word for the pain and agony I suffered on my legs. It was impossible to move them and I could only get started after Ted had rubbed them fir about two hours and then it was only possible for me to shuffle along with his help. This state of affairs lasted three or four days, in fact one of these days I spent hidden in the snow as I just couldn’t move at all. But we had to keep going somehow I managed to crawl along. We could still hear gunfire and still heading in that direction for three days and night, on the evening of the fourth night, we came across a farm. Desperate and tired, utterly beyond caring who or what was inside that building, we staggered up to the door and burst it open. Sitting, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed around a table, were what appeared to be the whole family eating supper. We were quite prepared to bash in all their heads so desperate we were, when one of them said “Blimey matey, you look a bloody rough couple,” We just about collapsed in hysterics. It turned out that they were a couple of Cockney prisoners employed by this Polish (turned German) farmer. Several weeks before the Germans had rounded us up, these smart guys had ‘disappeared’ and had been hidden by this farmer, and were going to stay hidden until the Russians turned up. They wanted us to stay with them, but after a good nights rest and a feed, we went on our way. This farmer was not quite so well off for food as Peg-leg had been, and two more mouths to feed, was asking a bit much, we thought. Sanity was returning.
Snow was still falling heavily; we were still knee deep in it, following the road in the forest parallel with the main road. It was while we were resting in it one day, eating a cold snack, when two S.S men caught up with us. One was a Sergeant and one a corporal. With a sub-machine gun held at our stomachs, we were made to tell our story. Now my spirits really were low. Anyone getting anything past these Bastards and remaining alive to tell the tale were few and far between. They didn’t believe us of course. The air was foul with shouts and curses. “Dirty Russian spies” one shouted, and from that it was not hard to guess where we were going to end. AS he shouted and cursed, something inside me snapped and I started yelling back at him. I don’t even remember what I yelled at him but I’d learned a few choice phrases in the past few years, all in German too. Just how this slanging match would have ended I do not know, or rather I do know, but at that moment ten German soldiers and a sergeant came into sight. It was their intervention that saved the day, there was no love lost between the Weremacht and the S.S and eleven to two was not the odds the S.S were used to. After a few questions it was with great relief that we heard the sergeant tell us to head back to Danzig with the rest of the transport, where we would fine the road. Glad to escape, we did away and soon were mingling with the now retreating Germans on the main road, though before we’d travelled half a Kilo, we had once more nipped off into the wood and were on our way again. It was easier now to slip away on ones own, and home was still our goal, not Germany.
Night was not far off and we were once more felling the cold, and hunger gnawed at our stomachs, when suddenly we came across a large clearing, in the centre of which stood a farmhouse and buildings. We made straight for the door and hammered on it. The door opened and there stood an old man and woman, presumably man and wife. Without much ceremony we pushed past them and inside there were about ten kids, and two or three women, who upon seeing us started to cry. When I later looked in the mirror I really couldn’t blame them for crying, it was a wonder they hadn’t screamed the place down. Staring back at me from the mirror was a dirty, unshaven, ugly face, white and cold with hunger. However, we managed to persuade them that we only looked like villains, whereupon they shared their supper with us and invited us to stay the night. Indeed they seemed actually relieved to have us; I expect they often slept in fear of their lives in that forest at that time. Later the old man told us that the Russians were sweeping forward again and with this cheerful thought in our minds, we settled down for a good nights rest. Next morning we went outside and we could now see clouds of smoke about ten or twelve Kilos away. We both knew it was shell fire and reckoned that the next morning should see the Russians with us. We told the old man and whilst we were speaking with him, a young fellow arrived. He was about twenty years old, a Pole, and he was full of news. The Russians were now quite near, in fact, four tanks had already probed through one Kilo away. The old man was all for digging a dugout, which we agreed was a good idea, so we all got shovels and picks and by nightfall we had it all finished. After supper we suggested that we should sleep in the barn as a precaution, for we imagined that if the Russians saw us in strange uniforms, they would shoot first and ask questions afterwards, whereas the old man and the Pole could prepare them for the sight of us. They agreed, so Ted and I slept in the barn on straw with sheepskin rugs to cover is. The next thing I knew was the feel of a kick in the ribs; I sat up and found myself facing a muzzle of a Tommy-gun, real American style I remember thinking. There were ten of them, all young fellows of about twenty to twenty five, dressed in a sort of padded jacket and fur caps while underneath I caught a glimpse of a brownish uniform. They stood in a ring around us and shouted something that I couldn’t make out. The old man and the Pole hastened to tell us that they wanted us to hurry. We hurried alright as we struggled into our jackets and great-coats with the Russians shouting “Hoch, Hoch!” The Pole kept telling us that the Russians wanted us to get to the farmhouse where they could see us in better light; they had never seen an Englishman before. Once they looked us over us closely (they were tickled pink with Ted’s ginger mop), anyway they seemed satisfied with what they saw for they started to smile very slowly. I was sure glad to see those smiles and soon we were all laughing and shaking hands. One of them, a sergeant, spoke to the Pole telling him that he wanted us to go with them and do exactly as they did. A rifle was pushed into Ted’s hand and a Tommy-gun into mine, but I managed to make them understand that it was of no use to me as I did not understand the working of them. They just laughed and handed me a rifle instead and off we went. We moved quietly in single file, with Ted and I in the middle, across the clearing, through the wood and out into the open country. We got first hand knowledge on how the Russians fought and fed. We would come upon a farm or a house, surround it, shoot it up and go in and get what wanted. We hadn’t much choice but truth to tell, the pent up hate of four years of captivity was now rearing its ugly head, I make no excuse, war does strange things to us all; I was twenty years old when I was taken prisoner. Anyway, I remember saying to Ted that it would be damned hard lines if we were to be shot now. All night long we encountered trouble, until daylight came and we were heading straight for a village we could see in the distance. The patrol headed straight for the village and told us to go inside and sleep there. We web tub and stood pop-eyed at all the Russians sleeping there, the place stank but we had no other choice, so we found a spot and lay down and slept like logs. It must have been about midday when we awoke and ongoing outside we saw a queue lined up for food. We joined and were rewarded with a Dixie full of pure fat in which floated lumps of meat. We gobbled it up and then went off for and interview with the Colonel in charge. The interpreter could speak little English and not much German, but between the two I gathered he was happy to help us. We did ask him which was the best way to get home to England and, possibly enjoying the joke, he replied “Walk”. Well that was that, for walk we did, from East Prussia to Odessa and from there we sailed home, but that is another tail.
Top, 19 yrs old 1939 volunteered.
Middle, 20 yrs old 1940.
Bottom, 25 yrs old 1945 after getting home.
Fusilier George Huntley, third right back row 1940 before capture. Only other person I know is his sergeant, Tommy Fawcett to his right, great friends after the war.
Various pictures of him and the lads after capture in and around Stalag 20B near Danzig Poland.
These lads were all heroes, still miss you Dad.