Mhairi Livingstone Ross concludes her fatherâ€™s moving account of prisoner of war camp and ultimate release.
As the years of war slowly dragged on, the men became ever resourceful in finding ways to make their captivity bearable and to alleviate boredom. Graham Hopper was known as â€œDer Professorâ€ and, with his spectacles and, shining domed head, looked very much like the statistician he was in civilian life. He was concerned that, as months of captivity became years, the spirit of the men would be ground down. He decided to set about starting a theatre company in the camp and enlisted the help of Alasdair Carmichael-â€œthe bishopâ€- as playwright.
Christmas 1942 saw the premiere of â€œBabes in the Woodâ€-a pantomime. Courtiers, princes and princesses, wandering minstrels, wicked stepmother and fairy godmother shared the stage with the â€œBabesâ€, Jeannie and Wullie. John the Lawyer played Third Huntsman and, if the reviews on his treasured programme are to be believed, he acted his role well. The preparations gave the men a new impetus and enthusiasm. Sets had to be designed and built; clothing purloined and adapted to make costumes; carpenters, electricians and painters had to beg, borrow, steal or invent ways of achieving their objectives; scripts written, chorus and orchestra assembled and rehearsed, make-up made up and applied, scenery planned and painted, programmes designed and printed. The effort involved in producing the show acted as a great unifier. New friendships, which would last beyond war, were formed, — comrades in arms and comrades in captivity.
The pain felt by many at being far from home, especially at Christmas was, in some way, alleviated by pantomimes and concerts. Guards and guarded would unite in carol singing, both with their own thoughts of family and home and Johnnyâ€™s hymn book, snow-stained at Stille Nacht, was to evoke bitter-sweet memories in the years to come.
New Year was, traditionally, a more important festival in the Highlands and, being a prisoner in Germany would do nothing to detract from that. With eager anticipation, the teuchters waited for the â€œbellsâ€. For months, they had taken it in turn to secretly fish potatoes out of the store using a nail on a stick. An engineer with some basic knowledge of chemistry, was coerced into putting his skills to use. He extracted enough alcohol from meths to make a base for the brew. Raisins, potatoes, boot polish and anything that could be found, were added to the preparation by a couple of Islay lads who could be expected to know a thing or two about distilling. It would be a Hogmanay to remember!
Unfortunately, when they buried their uisge beatha between two huts, the ground was soft and easily turned over. When they came to dig it up in time for New Year, frost had rendered exhumation impossible. The ground was frozen solid. Celebrations and reputations were distinctly diminished that year, which was probably just as well as the traditional Neâ€™erday shinty match was due to take place in a few hours. With the reappearance of the pipes and a measure of home comforts, Bleicherode camp was better than some and Johnny grew accustomed to waiting out the war in this pleasant corner of Germany.
The camp commandant was eager to photograph the men if it provided an opportunity for propaganda. Official camp photos would be sent home, showing how well the men were being looked after and what the Germans were doing for them. It was illegal to photograph anything without an official stamp. Ingenuity was called for .The ubiquitous potato again came into its own. A slice was taken and a newly stamped photo was urgently acquired. The potato was placed on the stamp, the resulting image transferred to paper and the process repeated to render the stamp the right way round. Many illegal and informal snaps were taken this way and avoided detection. Had they been discovered, their architects could have been shot.
Â As the years dragged on, the guards and prisoners became, if not friends, at least understanding of one another. Regulations were more relaxed and guards, on pain of being shot if one escaped, were allowed to sign out prisoners on a Sunday, to help them in their own gardens and homes. Johnny was able to meet civilians for the first time in many years and came to have an understanding of, and respect for, many who made his ordeal bearable. There were many happy times to counter the sad.
The overriding thoughts in most minds were of home and family. Johnny would compose poems to ease the longing and, though these would not find a home amongst the great literature of our time, were written with genuine emotion and real pathos. They summed up what most in the camp felt.
In the years after the war, Johnny, like many of his comrades, would speak reluctantly and only occasionally of what he had been through and the experiences he had suffered. He would remember the Englishman with a hole in both cheeks where a bullet had entered one and exited the other. He would recall Jackie MacRae from Lochcarron, who, one summer, stretched up from his seat on the back of a truck to pick a ripe plum from an overhanging branch, only to fall backwards and break his neck. He would laugh gently when he remembered the time two anxious parents, working in a nearby allotment, constantly checked on their young child who appeared to cry when they were at the bottom of the field but was always asleep when they came to comfort it. They never did discover that Tommy MacMillan could imitate a babyâ€™s cry with uncanny accuracy and used his talent to the great annoyance of the Germans. Most of all, he remembered his comrades, men like himself, who had been wrenched from their ordinary lives and sent to hell.
Â Â Â Â Â As the summer of 1944 waned, events on the Western front were signalling a change in fortune for the allies. The German guards in Bleicherode became more tolerant and eventually allowed the men permission to go beyond the camp perimeter to swim in a pool in the river. Safe in the knowledge that it could never be disproved, one of the prisoners had regularly boasted his prowess at swimming. Before the war, he had been a champion. Before the war, he could out-swim practically anyone. Before the war, he had been an ace diver. On the first outing to the pool, he was put to the test. He dived spectacularly from the plank and executed a clean entry into the water. He failed to take account of the water only being a few feet deep, however, and it was only when his legs began to flail about and he showed no sign of surfacing, that his pals set about pulling him out. His head and arms were well and truly stuck in the sand and it took some time to free him. His life was saved but his reputation as a swimmer was somewhat diminished.
Ajax was an Alsatian belonging to one of the guards. He had his wires crossed at some point in his training, because, despite numerous corrective lessons, he was happier in the company of the prisoners than on duty as a guard dog. He joyfully accompanied the men to the river but invariably ended up being rescued. Ajax couldnâ€™t swim. Again, resourcefulness was called for. Here was an ally that needed help. Ajax was collared, measured and fitted with water wings to allow him the delight of playing in the river with the men—-a small gesture to a dumb animal but significant in showing that basic human kindness can overcome many adversities.
As March turned to April in 1945, it became clear that the tide had turned and Germany was losing the war. Guards and their officers became nervous and agitated. Increasingly, gunfire could be heard to the west and the nearby town of Nordhausen, home of the V1 and V2 vengeance weapons factory, was being bombed nightly. The men in camp 1401 were caught between fear from danger of friendly fire and desperation to be liberated.
The Germans were becoming anxious and doing all in their power to clear all the camps in the area .The first few days of April became a blur. Chaos and confusion accompanied the men as they were hustled along the road from Bleicherode. As the allies advanced, so the Germans retreated until, one day, Johnny realised the guards had disappeared. For the first time in five years, he walked the road a free man. He was 39,weighed less than six stone and carried only what he was able to cram into his kit bag.
Far away, from an abandoned radio came, unbelievably, unmistakably, the haunting strains of The Eriskay Love Lilt, filling the air with the sound of home. Over the hill behind him, he thought he heard a familiar but long-forgotten sound. Turning, he saw the Stars and Stripes fluttering on a radio antenna. The first tank belonging to the 174th Battalion of U.S. Artillery come over the rise.
Johnnyâ€™s war was over.