The next leg in this seemingly never-ending journey to reach a 'permanent' camp led northwards, then eastwards, and finally we arrived about 6 km east of Heilbronn, at the small village of Weinsburg, in the heart of German wine country. The old camp, parts of which dated back to the First World War, was set in hilly country with slopes covered in vineyards and dark forests, and this was confirmed as our final and permanent camp. Prominent in the view from the camp was the village church and, beyond that, on a conical hill, rested the ruins of an old castle, built in the twelfth century and known to the local community as 'Weibertreu' ('Castle of Faithful Wives'). The story goes that, during the early history of the area, when wars between neighbouring states were common, the castle was besieged. The investing army chose to show clemency before the final onslaught by granting safe passage to the womenfolk, on condition that they only carry out as much as could be borne on their backs. Remaining faithful to their promise, the besieging army watched in astonishment as the women carried out their husbands!
The wooden hutments of the camp were set in two rows about an open, dusty 'playground'. Each bungalow contained ten rooms and each of these, small and cramped, housed fourteen men. The double-storey wooden bunks, together with a tall cupboard, a narrow vertical stove/room-heater, fed with brickettes when available, and a modest table, served as furniture. The camp was designated Oflag V-A (Officer Camp V-A). A large wooden structure served as a dining, games and entertainment centre. Sentries paced, 24 hours a day, beyond a high, double, barbed-wire fence in between which lay rolls of more barbed wire. Further to this security, more sentries were perched on high watch towers, manning searchlights and machine-guns.
A typical postcard from a Second World War prisoner of war camp.
In the photograph, POW Arthur Candy is seen on the far right, back row. (Photo: By courtesy. A Candy).
During daylight hours, we were permitted to move freely about the camp provided we did not cross a low trip-wire located three metres from the perimeter fence. Lights were extinguished at 21.30, after which no movement outside the bungalows was permitted. In the cold, clear winter night, with temperatures commonly at -10°C, it was not unusual to hear shouts directed at the sentries who were muffled up in greatcoats and balaclavas. 'Hey, Fritz! Stop stamping your ... feet! We can't sleep!' They were indeed cold nights. On one such night, I recall staggering to the toilet at about 03.00 and innocently clutching the steel handle of the swing door. To my surprise, I had a moment of panic when I found my fingers partially frozen to the handle!
Our knowledge of the war's progress was very limited and, in orderto expand this, we were encouraged by our 'intelligence committee' to bribe those German guards whose duty it was to wander about the camp and into rooms on the look-out for illicit activities. With the passage oftime, bribery became easier, as the guards grew tired of the war. A typical scenario would be that of a German sergeant opening the door to a room and walking in to find three or four occupants enjoying real coffee and smoking good Players' cigarettes. An exchange of greetings would take place and, in a mood offriendship and generosity, the German sergeant would be offered a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Then he would be offered another cigarette 'foryourfriend at home'. The smell of coffee and cigarette smoke was a temptation almost beyond the control of the guard, who would quickly take a peep down the corridor (he must not be seen) before accepting. Conversation, made clumsy by the language barrier, would begin innocently enough with comments about family and then gradually turn to the terrible war in progress. We would glean odd bits of information, which we added to our store. Through these and other means, we were able to make very good estimates of battle fronts on a wall map, which I kept in my possession after the war. (It is now housed in the Archives of the South African National Museum of Military History.)
War map, c1944. This map was drawn and kept up to date by the inmates of a room in the POW camp, Oflag V-A.
It indicated advances made by the Allies, based on information secured through bribing the POW guards with cigarettes
and cups of coffee. Dates indicate bombing raids. The annotations ended abruptly when Atthur Candy and his fellow inmates
were suddenly transferred to a much larger camp at Moosburg, near Munich, in the face of advancing Allied forces.
The map is now in the archives of the SA National Museum of Military History.
Our greatest breakthrough in the collection of information came quite unexpectedly via the generosity of the Camp Commandant, who engaged a civilian film group to entertain us with an old but popular musical. It proved to be a wonderful film to relieve the monotony of our restricted lives. Among the prisoners were two electrical 'boffins' who quickly spotted an opportunity and decided to befriend the cine operators. Well armed with bribery 'bait', they played upon the weaknesses of the German engineers to such an extent that, after they had packed up and left that evening, they were missing several pieces of equipment, sufficient for our 'boffins' to construct a primitive, albeit efficient, radio receiver.
Postcard featuring an artist's impression of Weinsburg in oils by J Ferguson from the end of Bungalow 24 in the POW Camp.
The old castle and the church steeple are prominent in the background. (Postcard kindly supplied by Mrs S Candy, Australia).
Very few new prisoners joined us, but there was one who deserves mention. He was Capt Charles Upham, VC, a New Zealander, greatly admired by his comrades-in-arms. A quiet and withdrawn man who farmed sheep in the South Island, he was said to have had an innate hatred of the Germans. He spent a great deal of his brief stay with us sitting alone in the sun on a bed-board, reading. As it turned out, he was planning a daring escape. One day, he calmly stood up, carried the bed-board to the fence and, with the sentry's back to him, clambered up and lowered himself down into the barbed wire between the fences. This activity, of course, drew the sentry's attention, who, with shouts and whistles, brought out a posse of guards. With great difficulty, he was eventually extricated and immediately confined to a punishment cell, lodged in the main German Administration area ofthe camp. This brought him one step closer to the main gate, an unguarded exit leading directly out of the administrative area. He bided his time for two days in isolation and then seized the opportunity when the evening meal of hot soup was delivered to him. Flinging it into the guard's face, Upham made a dash for the main gate and was gone. Sad to say, his freedom was short-lived. In the clamourof shouts, ringing bells and barking dogs, he was recaptured and sent to some other camp, much to the disgust and anger of his New Zealand comrades.
The Allies advance ...
As the months passed, it became clear that time was on our side with the Allies advancing on every front. The level of optimism and hope rose and with this, the variety of activities widened. Some of these are cited below. The Commandant, although conscientious in his duties, was not averse to allowing us many privileges. With his permission and some help, a number of paws with musical and acting talent put together two remarkable shows, 'The Mikado' and 'Cinderella'. So impressed was the Commandant with the result that he ordered photographs to be taken, one of which I still have. The art group, which had been started in Italy (see Part One of this article in Military History Journal, Vol 14 No 3, p 85), was active again with added enthusiasm as we were now permitted to take long walks into the magnificent forests close to the camp, supervised, of course, by a contingent of armed guards. Capt Taffy Harcourt, a student colleague of mine, who had been granted a Rhodes scholarship as war broke out and was now a POW, was able to continue his Law studies in preparation for entry into Oxford University. Two other paws, a qualified quantity surveyor and a bank official, decided to use the time to change their professions, the former looking into a dentistry career, and the latter, a medical degree. Both approached me simultaneously, asking if I would take them through an introductory course in chemistry, which was an essential requirement for entry to the relevant university courses in England. It was gratifying to learn, some years later, that both had successfully reached their goals and were practicing their new professions in South Africa. As part of these many activities, the central concourse of the camp was always occupied by joggers, walkers, basketball players, gymnasts and others bent on improving their fitness.
In addition to the above-mentioned activities, there was in progress one covert operation, the excavation of an escape tunnel. Although the operation was confined to a particular hut, the difficulty of disposing of waste soil involved several other huts, of which ours was one, putting our cupboard at their disposal. The work on the tunnel had progressed very well and it was only a matter of days before break-out. The small, grey-haired, camp handyman entered our room one morning intent on repairing a switch located close to the cupboard. Unable to move the cupboard on his own, he called a guard for assistance. As they struggled with the cupboard, they saw a trickle of sand seeping from the crack between the two doors. As one might expect, they were puzzled by this and demanded thatthe cupboard be opened. They were outraged to see piles of sand stacked on the shelves. It was not long before a thorough search exposed the whole scheme. To ensure that no future tunnels were dug, the Germans took a great deal of trouble to bury some sort of device around the perimeter ofthe camp, which was capable of detecting the sounds and vibrations caused by tunnelling. As a punishment, the occupants of the bungalow in which the tunnel was excavated lost their privileges for some weeks.
Bombers over Germany
It was at the Oflag V-A camp that we were to witness, on many occasions, groups of many hundreds of Allied bombers making their way to targets within Germany. Information obtained from our secret radio told us that these were no doubt part ofthe 'thousand bomber raids' then being mounted against'the Fatherland'. It was an extraordinary experience to hear, far away at first, the slowly increasing drone of hundreds of these huge propeller-driven aircraft, and then to see them appear from behind the forest trees, wave upon wave, leaving in their wake countless white vapour trails against the blue sky. If their designated target was within hearing range, there would follow a dull booming sound, lasting many minutes, as they dropped their bombs. At night, the results of these raids were sometimes visible as a bright orange glow on the distant horizon. On one particular night, we were jolted awake by the moan of air-raid sirens and, amid great agitation, we were bundled into slit trenches, dug specifically for such eventualities. Bombers could be heard overhead and there was considerable concern among the prisoners that the Allies had mistaken the camp for a worthwhile target. This notion was reinforced when a ring of bright amber flares was dropped directly above the camp site, lighting up the clouds above and the area below sufficiently to read newsprint. No aircraft could be seen as these flares floated gently and silently down to earth, but the droning of their powerful engines persisted. We all waited nervously. Then, to our great relief, the thunder of bursting bombs was heard close by, to the west of the camp. Heilbronn, about six kilometres away, was 'copping' it that night. We could only believe, that the flares were dropped to light up as a warning to the bombers to keep off! That was in late November 1944.
Despite the exciting and positive bits of news that we received about the progress of the war, the mood in the camp grew increasingly impatient, while the German guards grew gloomier as the days passed. The big question was 'how long could this war go on?' It was a selfish question, I suppose, with little regard for the hundreds and thousands who were slogging it out on the many battle fronts. Winter came, shedding its burden of snow and ice and forcing us to crouch close to the quaint but highly efficient stoves in each room. It was about this time that a message was delivered from the German authorities making it clear that the German people were suffering serious food shortages and that, as a consequence, our scale of rations was to be downgraded to that of 'Jews and dogs'. Indeed, the change was very perceptible! We read this as a good omen, as a sign of the changing times. One brisk morning in March 1945, I was taking a stroll with a fellow POW when he stopped suddenly and, turning, exclaimed, 'Listen, listen carefully!' What he had heard was not the sharp crackle of small arms fire but the muffled sound of distant gunfire and, even though the sweet sound soon ceased and was not heard again, this was a dramatic moment. As the news swept swiftly through the camp, the mood changed rapidly to elation and expectation. There was a 'smell of freedom' in the air. Could the sound we had Iward signal an early release, perhaps only a few days away? Conversation in the room that night centred solely on this wonderful turn of events, but somebody caused a ripple of uncertainty with a word of caution: 'Don't forget the Italian fiasco!' (See Part One in MHJ Vol14 No 3, pp 86-7). He was quickly shouted down.
How easy it is to push aside those unpalatable and unwanted reminders! After a day of deliberation, the SBO (Senior British Officer, the prisoners' representative officer) approached the Camp Commandant with the purpose of striking a deal, which could be summarised as follows:
Any instruction received to have the prisoners transferred should be ignored by the Commandant and, in return, the prisoners, when released by the Allies, would give him all the support possible and a guarantee of his safety. The Commandant requested time for consideration. Forty-eight hours later, the SBO was informed that the Commandant had suffered a nervous breakdown and had been replaced. His successor turned out to be a most uncooperative and hard-nosed individual. Three days later, our worst fears were realised when an order was issued, apparently from none other than Himmler himself, that we were to be ready to move within three hours. One was reminded, vividly, of the old adage, never to count one's chickens before they hatch. The camp guard was heavily reinforced and, with heavy hearts, we entrained for an unknown destination.
Rumour had it that we were heading for a prison near Berchtesgarten, Hitler's personal headquarters, where we were to be held as hostages. Rumours, rumours, rumours! Fortunately, this proved to be false. I cannot recall how long the journey lasted, but there were several stops along the way, during which we were told to keep clear of the train for fear of air attncks. A fair amount of air activity was evident. At one of the stops, in the open country, we saw many hundreds of civilians in flight. Down a road which crossed the railway line, an endless column of old men, women and children, with gaunt faces, carried, pushed and pulled their belongings on wheelbarrows and carts. It was a pitiful sight and we wondered where they were bound, just as they must have wondered where we were bound, if they even noticed us.
POW documents issued to fellow South African POW, W J Reid, at Oflag V-A.
(Photos: By courtesy, SA National Museum of Military History).
The journey came to an end without incident, right in front of the familiar big wooden gates of the Moosburg camp, the very camp from which ourwanderings through Germany had started. The camp had changed only in one respect; there was a huge increase in the prisoner population there. It seemed that, as the Allied armies squeezed Germany from all sides, the Germans began to concentrate their prisoners at this camp. The Moosburg camp had become a vast city of men. The food was very poor and the few Red Cross parcels that found their way in to the camp were more than welcome. Weekly, the atmosphere in the camp grew more tense, among the captors and the prisoners alike. More guards and more Alsatian dogs were posted. One day a contingent of about 1 000 American prisoners was brought in. They were in a particularly poor condition, having marched for three days from some other camp in the north, forced to live on whatever they could scrounge from fields en route. Several of these men were found to be mentally deranged.
About three weeks after our arrival at Moosburg, the Camp Commandant summoned the Senior Allied Officer, a British colonel, and explained that the commander of the local German army group had requested him, under escort and carrying a white flag, to take a message to the opposing American commander who had established a front some 15 km away. This message, we were to learn later, was a request to maintain a neutral zone in and for some distance around the camp, and so avoid unnecessary casualties among the prisoners. The American reply was immediate and unequivocal: 'Request refused. We will take care of the camp and hold the German Army responsible for any harm to the prisoners. We will arrive there at 08.00 tomorrow.' We were advised to remain calm, but to prepare for any eventuality during the next forty-eight hours. We learned later that the German request was a covert attempt to deny the advancing American army the use of an important bridge over the river, Isar, which flowed close by. This would have forced the Americans to take a circuitous route to reach their objectives.
Needless to say, we spent a restless night wondering and guessing what lay ahead the following day. Early the next morning, a prisoner named Dudley Haines and I left our bunks and, although it was quiet, chose a well sheltered route to see what might be afoot at the main gate. There were no guards to be seen anywhere. A few prisoners moved cautiously among the hutments. Suddenly, somewhere behind us, some bursts of machine-gun fire were heard echoing through the camp. We sought refuge behind a bungalow. An eerie silence followed. Later, we very cautiously returned to our hut. Almost on the hour of eight that morning we heard the noise of vehicles approaching. The gates were thrust open and American troops surged into the camp. This was our greatest day in two years and ten months! We were free again! Since they were moving rapidly forward, the relieving troops were gone within an hour, leaving behind a well-equipped commissariat. To us, the most exciting product from this field kitchen was the bread, which was snow-white and as soft as cotton wool. We learned that, during the night, a platoon of Germans had secretly entered the camp area and were responsible for the gunfire we had heard, which had killed one POW. The members of this party were caught by the Americans, and simply disappeared.
Although a large number of prisoners were excited and elated by our release, those who had been incarcerated for some four or five years had great difficulty in throwing off their despair. Two days passed and then the big event happened. We were transported by truck twenty kilometres eastwards to an aerodrome on the outskirts of Landshut. We spread ourselves out on the perimeter of this vast green field while an army radio truck, positioned at the centre of the airfield, called in as many aircraft as could be spared. The spectacle was unbelievable. Literally hundreds of 'Dakotas' arrived from all directions, queuing in the sky as they waited for landing space. Meanwhile, the men on the ground were counted off into groups of twenty-six, each group assigned to an aircraft, which was manned by a rather happy-go-lucky American pilot and co-pilot. The aircraft took off immediately and, depending on the nationality of the occupants, set course for assembly points all over Europe.
By mid-afternoon, all those destined for Britain had landed near Brussels. Another short trip by truck brought us to accommodation in a large army barracks in Brussels itself. Here, after showering, we were obliged to undergo a 'de-lousing' procedure which entailed having a Belgian army officer pump clouds of DDT up each sleeve and down each trouser leg and down the back and front of one's shirt. I cannot help but wonder how the environmentalists would react to this treatment today?
Having shaken off as much of the powder as possible, four of us set off to have dinner in the city. It happened to be the evening of VE Day - Victory in Europe, 8 May 1945 - and the city of Brussels had erupted in a fever of excitement and jubilation, and deservedly so. It seemed that the whole population had gathered in the city, leading to a frenzy of shouting, singing and dancing. The four of us elbowed and shoved our way into a restaurant packed with civilians and soldiers. Communication was a problem until we spoke in Afrikaans, a language with close links to Flemish. Interestingly, a group of Scottish soldiers at an adjacent table were sure we were speaking Gaelic! As might be expected, the dinner, which was by no means lavish, cost a fortune.
The Allied victory
The following day was declared a public holiday throughout Europe, so I believe, but, despite this time for a well-earned rest, the crews of a squadron of RAF bombers volunteered to airlift us to England. So, we were once more divided into groups, much smaller groups this time, and introduced to our respective air crews, a far more disciplined body of men than the American airmen, and prepared for the brief flight to England. Notwithstanding their enormous size, these bombers, 'Lancasters', were not designed to carry human cargo, and so we were obliged to scramble and wriggle our way into any vacant spaces we could find in the fuselage. Lying on my belly among belts of machine-gun ammunition and other paraphernalia, I was fortunate to find a chink through which I could monitor our progress over the Channel. Soon the famous 'White Cliffs of Dover' appeared before us, quickly giving way to a pattern of green fields. In the mid-afternoon, the short procession of bombers commenced their landings at Horsham and West Sussex. More scrambling followed and then we were out in the bright sunshine of a spring day. Our baggage, little as it was, had been carried in the bomb bays of several aircraft. As the aircraft came in to land, the bomb bay of one opened accidentally on touchdown, giving the assembled onlookers the strange sight of a miscellany of greatcoats, bits of clothing, and odd suitcases and other belongings strewn along the runway.
On leaving the aircraft, we were led to a large tent where, to our great surprise and concern, we were subjected once more to the indignity of being peppered with DDT powder. After this, life really changed for the better when, on a spread of lush green grass set about with trees in their new spring leaf, a group of charming people welcomed us with a typical English tea party with trestle tables covered with white cloth and china cups and saucers, tea, cakes, biscuits and, I'm sure, also cucumber sandwiches.
It was difficult to grasp this new reality so soon after having spent years living with the dust and dirt of the desert or the restrictions imposed on us in POW camps. Our memories of the niceties in life had been eroded to such an extent that they were but weak images. A few censored letters and a photograph of Solveig, which I carried in my pocket from day one, served to help me maintain a tenuous link with the real world.
Refreshed by a good night's sleep on plain but very comfortable beds in Nissan huts, we were transported south to Brighton by train. There, four of us were billeted in one of a row of similar houses in the suburb of Hove, a few minutes' walk from the sea shore, and what a sea shore it was, with pebbles, pebbles and more pebbles! Not far from our billet stood Roedean Girls' School, a beautiful set of buildings with wide green lawns, which were being used as the headquarters for the reception and repatriation of all South African ex-POWs, manned by Union Defence Forces' personnel. As we entered the school grounds to receive new uniforms, new documents, pay and instructions for repatriation, we were met by a scene of utter chaos. The lawns were strewn with tunics, trousers, underwear, boots and head gear, while more of the same was being tossed out of the first floor windows. Amidst all this, men were frantically searching for items that would fit them. We were soon to learn that the officials in charge had not been carefully chosen nor fully prepared to meet and manage several thousand ex-POWs, mostly other ranks, many of whom had suffered great privation during their captivity. These men had one aim in mind - to get home as soon as possible - and they were in no mood to tolerate a series of bureaucratic procedures. I recall that several high-ranking officers, more sympathetic and understanding, arrived the next day and restored order.
Freshly kitted out and with some money and ration cards in our pockets, we were free to come and go as we pleased, pending individual decisions whether to fly back home or to return by sea. There were rumours, with some truth, I believe, that one or two aircraft had crashed on the return journey, and this led many of us to prefer the sea route, which meant that we had to bide our time for another week or two.
At last, we were placed on 24 hours' notice and one afternoon we left Brighton in a packed troop train for some undivulged destination. As we rattled along through the night, nobody slept. I recall spending most of the time in the corridor talking to various friends and wondering, firstly, where we were bound and, secondly, what the future had in store for us. The train flashed through many stations, stopping once at Leicester at some late hour, where a group of uniformed women had given up their evening to serve us tea and sandwiches. God bless them! We sped on and, slowly, it dawned on us that our destination was to be Glasgow. Early the next morning, we boarded the SS Strathaird, which was moored at Greenock. Within the day, the ship moved quietly out into the Irish Channel and, to our surprise, we were warned that blackout rules were still in force, as the war in the Far East was still very much alive, and no chances could be taken. The ship carried a mixture of personnel, some nurses, British troops heading for the Far East, and of course, a number of us ex-POWs.
The weather was kind to us throughout the journey. I remember a very distinct increase in the humidity as we entered the tropical zone and saw the pale misty outline of the arid African coast near Dakar, which changed gradually to the deep, dense, green forest of Central Africa as we dropped anchor in a bay at Takaradi. Here we picked up a contingent of European men who, having soldiered in this area, had been required to take the antimalarial drug, mepacrine, a yellow dye which gave them a bright orange complexion that was quite alarming at first sight. It was here that we saw another surprising sight - a large, four-funnelled, passenger liner was seen permanently berthed at the far side of the bay. After a few more days at sea, Table Mountain stood before us. Although we were still 'under orders', for us, the war was over.
After the war, Arthur Candy became a lecturer in chemistry at the University of Natal, Durban, and was on the staff there for 30 years.
Letters to the Editor
ARTHUR CANDY AT OFLAG VA, WEINSBURG
Thank you for sending the June 2008 Military History Journal which includes my late husband's (Arthur Candy's) account of the experiences of prisoner-of-war life in World WarTwo. You have incorporated good illustrations and maps, including the countries of the Red Cross that sent parcels regularly to succourthe POWs. It helped enormously to keep their morale up.
We visited OFLAG VA at Weinsburg, Germany, in October 1991. The camp site was undergoing change by a housing estate - cranes everywhere transforming it to a fine complex amid the vineyards. We discovered an even better find in nearby Heilbronn - a magnificent large tree, ginkgo biloba, set in the middle of a large, green lawn. Being autumn, the golden leaves were fluttering down (one leaf enclosed, a memento of those dark days ... a living fossil that outlived the dinosaurs!) I had to share this story of discovery.
With kind regards,
Solveig Candy, Australia
A golden leaf from Ginkgo biloba, a tree familiar to the POWs in Oflag V-A
(Solveig Candy's letter is repeated above for the sake of continuity).
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