Dick Huston


Dick Huston, from New Zealand, was on the run on Crete until he was captured in 1943. From there he was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp and finally to Stalag 18A. This is his story. Click on a name to move to that section.


Markt Pongau


When we left Maunthausen, we had no idea where we were going, but the fact that we only had one guard, an elderly one, instead of the tight security we had become accustomed to when being shifted from prison to prison, made us suspect that a decision had been made about us. Only one guard could mean we were no longer important but no one had told us what was happening. You could say, for a change, no one was telling us we were going away to be shot or executed. The guard, who looked old enough to have retired from the army for many years, did not want to be communicative and rebuffed Harry who tried to have a conversation with him.


I vaguely remember when we were taken to the railway station, George, Sammy, Charley and Theo being put on a train travelling north while we others, who had been on Crete boarded a train going south. We must have gone through Vienna Neustadt, for I remember the troop trains going south and wondering what was causing troops to go that way. There were also trains loaded with tanks and guns and you did not have to exert your brain to know where they were going.


It is a wonder I do not remember more of that train journey, for we were experiencing something unusual and new. I do recall we were suspicious of anyone who spoke to us, and when a Scots bloke did speak to us, his speech was so broad that I thought he was a German pretending to speak English in spite of the fact he was wearing British battle dress. He did not seem to have a guard so we thought he could not be a prisoner of war. I did have a talk to him later when in the camp and he told me he was as suspicious of us as we were of him, for he thought us a queer lot as three of us were still in ragged semi-civilian clothing. When we arrived at Wolfsberg, our guard took him along too.


There were other civilian passengers in the same carriage with us and this did not seem to be unusual, other than the curious stares Colin, Gordon and I received. There did not seem to be any sympathy in the stares and I think we were deserving of sympathy, for our clothes could not hide how skinny we were. For the first time in six months we were not hemmed in by vigilant sentries or guards and being in the same carriage with civilians even if the guard separated us from them, gave us a sense of freedom that had been missing for some time. I know I began to hope again, but a cautious hope for I looked back on other times when I had dared to hope and the disappointments when those hopes had been dashed and the attendant emotions at those times.


The tentative hopes began to blossom when we arrived at Stalag XV111-A. Coming through the gates to the administration block, we could see behind the next high gate, prisoners in British battle dress moving around. This was certainly better than seeing striped convict clothing. Inside the administration block, we went to a reception area where they took our particulars, name, rank and nationality. Then a German doctor had a look at us in a naked state, and according to the interpreter, who was in British uniform but seemed to us to speak German like a German, we were given a medical grade, which meant we could not be expected to work for at least three months. He had a good look at my hand and said I was to get treatment at the English hospital, which had us, all looking blankly at each other. The interpreter then told us there was a hospital within the camp run by English doctors.


We were then taken to the showers and on the way were subject to curious looks from prisoners within the camp. They asked questions and we told them we had come up from Crete after being on the loose for two years. We certainly must have looked suspicious to the other prisoners until we told this, and who we were. The guards did not try to stop us from talking to them, and by the time we got to the showers, the guards had some difficulty in keeping the prisoners away from us. Those hopes were sure starting to sprout.


Our clothes were taken from us before we entered the showers and we were told we were going through the delouser. I will always remember that shower, the first in over two years. Even back in the prison on Crete we had never showered, only washed. It was impossible to describe the feeling as warm water washed our bodies of some of the accumulated grime. They had even given us a cake of Lifebuoy soap, which we shared. Another surprise when we came out of the showers was to find that new underclothes and uniforms were being supplied to us, and we never got our old clothing back. In some ways I was sorry about this, for that old ragged clothing had served us well. While showering, I had put my sovereign in my mouth, and the other two had done the same. I always did this in future searches and on one occasion when asked to open my mouth when a search was on, had it under my tongue and it was never discovered.


 Being back in uniform felt strange for a while, but with clean clothes, clean body, there seemed to be a future unfolding for us again. Back at the reception area, we were given a prisoner of war meat ticket or identity disc, this time in real metal, so it seemed we were now officially POWs. We had a few qualms when we were put into the bunker; we had hoped we were finished with bunkers. Some food was brought to us, a watery soup and more bread than we had seen in months. Even the soup had more body than we had see in our previous bunker. At least you could see that cabbage had been used.


Colin and I were put in a cell, the other three, who were N.C.Os in another one. After what we had experienced in other cells, this was the best of all. The bunks were quite comfortable and we spent a lot of time asleep on these. Some time after dark, there was a hissing at the window and when we went to investigate, a hand holding a small parcel of food was pushed through. The food, we were to find out later, coming from Red Cross parcels. No words were exchanged, and for the days we spent in there, extra food was smuggled in to us in the same way. Who actually did it, I never found out so we could never express our gratitude to the kind person.


The second day at the camp we went through another interrogation by a Gestapo officer, but we were too experienced at this sort of thing now for them to have got anything from us, and to be truthful, I cannot remember what the questions were about. Tom Moir, Gordon Davis and Harry Masters (I now know that his surname was Masters) were sent on to an N.C.O’s camp that day and that left Colin and I in Stalag XV111-A. It was the last interrogation we had from the Gestapo as a group, and I’m sure we were not sorry about this. If nothing else, it told us that the Gestapo knew where we were and it did cross our minds that we may have been taken from Maunthausen without their consent.


We were sorry to see the other three go, for we had shared some hungry times together and experiences we would never forget. I never saw Tom Moir again, although I did speak to him on the phone twice after the war, but unfortunately he died before we could have that intended get-together that never materialised. I only saw Gordon once after the war, although we kept in touch with each other. Why we never made that extra effort to have that get- together is something that is hard to explain. We were always talking about it and arranging to meet at reunions, but we never managed to get us all together at one time. Understandable during the years immediately after the war, for we were all so busy rehabilitating our lives and providing security for our wives and children. Colin and I, being from the same town, saw a lot of each other and we did help each other in many ways until I changed my occupation and then we saw less of each other. Strange to relate, we never talked very much of those grim days.


The exact number of days Colin and I spent in the Stalag bunker is unclear, but the day did come when we were released out into the compound. We were taken from the bunker to the ‘disciplinarian barrack’ as it was called. This barrack, or hut, we learned, housed all the ‘hard cases’ from the Stalag men who had attempted to escape and had been recaptured, or others who had incurred displeasure from the Germans for other various reasons. You could say we were among our own kind and this really suited us for we were to find that not all POWs liked the men from the disciplinarian barrack, for by their escapes and other transgressions, they had caused loss of certain privileges to the so called law abiding POWs. However it would be safe to say that these men were in the minority by a big margin and even if there were some differences of opinion on the subject of escaping, all prisoners were united on one policy, to do as little work as possible for the Germans and in this small way, make a contribution to the war effort.


After five, almost six months of confinement in small cells, to be able to walk around the confines of Stalag and talk freely to other British prisoners was something like discovering you had suddenly found you could walk. It seemed to be something new or something you had forgotten how to do. I know I was groping for words when trying to express myself and it was some time before those words came back with fluency. Even to feel clean was a novelty. It was like coming into another world, not seeing those death carts going out every morning. Not seeing those skeletons in striped clothing staggering along that road. The contrast was so marked, where here you had men who did not seem to have a care in the world, who were well fed by comparison, who could live comfortably from the contents of their Red Cross parcels, which they received every week.


When we were taken to the disciplinarian barrack, we came under the care of Fred Whitehead, who when we found out we came from Gisborne, insisted we join his combine, a combine being a group of men who shared their Red Cross parcels, thus providing a better variety of food and certainly making the contents spread further. Fred undertook the task of fattening Colin and I and did such a great job of this, that at the end of three months we were back to our former army weight. Fred was a dealer, a natural at this and had contacts among the French prisoners who worked outside Stalag and brought in vegetables from farms. In a short time, Fred had his combine dining on a reasonably balanced diet for those restricted days. Within two weeks Colin and I could feel the strength returning to our bodies and to prove we had not lost our spirit, started planning an escape for the future.


The other members of the combine were; Tom Laurance an Australian, Shorty Cridge a New Zealander whom I have not see since I left Stalag, but who I believe lived in Christchurch. There was another man, a New Zealander whose name I cannot recall though I have dredged my memory bank. With Fred Whitehead, who came from Motu or Matawai, this made a combine of six, which according to the others, was the right number to have. Maybe they were right for I cannot remember being hungry while in Stalag. In fact Colin and I, although we did not tell the others, thought the food was luxurious in comparison to what we had eaten on Crete for two years. We remembered how we had sympathised with those poor prisoners up in Germany so it was a shock to find that they had been eating better than we had. We had seen how the civilian population in the occupied countries starved, so were amazed to find the British prisoners so well treated.


I think the French prisoners fared equally as well, but the Russians and the Serbians, whose countries were not signatories to the Geneva Convention, suffered terribly on concentration camp rations. Colin and I were very surprised to find that no one in the British section of Stalag drew his rations other than the bread from the German cookhouse, and I became unpopular for a short time when I protested about this. My viewpoint was that the ration, meagre as it might be, should be drawn to deprive the ration from the Germans, or even give it to the starving Russians who were in the compound beside our barrack. I think the truth hurt and some time after my protest to the M.O.C (Man of Confidence) some effort was made to get this soupy ration to the Russians.


Being in a combine meant the Red Cross parcel was enough to provide adequate food. One of the disciplines the Germans exercised was to withhold the issue of the parcels for a few days if something happened within the Stalag that displeased the Germans, but it had to be of a serious nature. I can only remember it happening only once during my stay in Stalag. Being a prisoner meant you could get parcels from home and write letters in limited quantities to your people back home. So all in all, Colin and I thought it to be not a bad sort of life, now that we knew the war was turning in favour of the Allies.


There is no doubt that being a prisoner of war is a very shocking traumatic experience, and although the traditional ‘death rather than dishonour’ of previous wars no longer applied, somehow every prisoner felt he had been let down and was carrying a stigma. Only a prisoner of war would know this feeling and perhaps that is why they have formed their exclusive P.O.W. Association. Most became prisoners because they had no option. They may have been left wounded on the battlefield or with fast moving tank warfare, whole battalions were isolated and their commanders surrendered to save loss of life in a hopeless position. When we came into XV111-A, we only saw what the camp had become through the efforts of the prisoners themselves mostly. We did remember the conditions in the transit camp back on Crete and the appalling conditions the men lived in then, and the men told us of the cattle trucks jammed tight with humanity and the starvation during the trip to Germany, so perhaps they had earned this better treatment. Most people have read of the marches across Germany to get away from the advancing Russians near the end of the war. This was another period of starvation for there were no issues of Red Cross parcels then because transport in Germany had become almost nonexistent, so this was another time when it was no pleasure to be a prisoner of war. There is a lot of uncertainty in being a prisoner and at times at the beginning and near the end, can be very nerve wracking.


The prisoners in the disciplinarian barrack told us of how they had seen 4500 Russian prisoners perish in the cold in this camp and I know of no reason to doubt the story. According to them, a column of 5000 Russians had arrived at the camp after having been on propaganda march or walk through Germany and Austria. It was the middle of winter and the temperature was very low when they arrived. They were taken to the showers, their clothes removed to go through the delouser, which meant that after coming out of a hot shower, with the water still on them they had to stand in temperatures that froze the water on their bodies for half an hour before they could be clothed again. Only 500 survived and this was only because the British prisoners went to them against the guard’s wishes and gave them clothes until their clothes came out of the delouser. They said they were only skeletons in about the same condition as we were in when we first arrived at the camp and had no strength left to resist the freezing conditions of that day. The guards who allowed this to happen must have been completely without feelings, which make it difficult for me to understand how some ex P.O.Ws can treat those guards like old buddies.


With the exception of the disciplinarian barrack, all the other British barracks or huts, were free standing within the one British compound. Our hut had a high barbed wire fence around it with one gateway in the fence. The gate was open most of the time, but it was shut when the Germans decided to do a surprise raid on the hut hoping to find hidden radios, and I knew of at least one, compasses, which were manufactured in the hut and maps of Germany and Austria, which were copied onto waterproof cloth from the original map. I can’t remember them finding anything of note, and for that matter I can’t remember anyone attempting an escape from the hut. The raids were a nuisance because they interfered with a game of bridge or some other card game being enjoyed by the tenants not engaged in map tracing or compass making. You could say the hut was well organised because everyone in the hut knew what was going on yet the Germans never found anything incriminating in the hut while I lived in it. The hut was positioned in the Stalag so the searching party was in full view when approaching the hut, and this gave us ample warning for everything to disappear.


Some incredible things happened in the Wolfsberg Stalag, even in the five months I lived there. Perhaps it might be wise to describe what I can remember of the camp and in particular, the buildings. Most of the buildings had been stables for the cavalry before horses became obsolete and tanks became the cavalry. I am not sure if all the buildings were the same, but ours had a concrete floor, high ceiling and wooden walls with high glass windows. Inside in the centre of the hut was a small potbelly stove, which was meant to warm the whole room, but was woefully inadequate. The top of it was useful for cooking some of the concoctions that could be made out of the contents of the Red Cross parcels. I seem to remember another method of cooking, perhaps another hot plate, for there would have to have been more than that pot-belly stove to cater for the amount of cooking that was done in the hut. Because the hut was always full of hard cases, the combine bosses arranged cooking times so that each could have its share of the cooking facilities. I can’t remember the size of the hut but it would have housed many horses when it was used for this purpose.


The bunks in the hut were three tiered, projecting five deep from the walls and running parallel with the walls, the bunks being head to head. These clusters of bunks had about six feet between clusters on the foot end. Each cluster held thirty men and there could have been twenty clusters each side against the outside walls. Down the centre of the hut ran a drain that had been used when they sluiced out the stables, and straddling the drain were tables with forms each side, quite large tables for dining, but I think used more for playing cards. Entry to the hut was at one end and on either side of the entry, two small rooms housed the privileged men who had been chosen by the prisoners to represent their interests to the Germans.


I think army people are used to being crammed into confined spaces and I cannot remember thinking we were short on space in the hut. Outside, there was plenty of space between the huts and the British prisoners had access to a big area where the morning count was taken. This area was also used for sports and I vaguely remember soccer being played but because I was not feeling sporty for the first months, there was no interest in any type of sport. If the weather was bad, and I did spend a winter in the hut, the fact that we were crammed meant we had more heat in the hut. It can get very cold in Austria, so cold on some days the prisoners were not allowed outside and on those days we worried about being overcrowded. Each prisoner had two blankets and an army greatcoat, and for some men who had come from warmer climates, this was not enough to keep out that biting cold. However, we were a lot better off than the Russians in the compound beside us. Sleeping on bare wood does not help to keep you warm and although each man was issued a straw palliasse, these found their way into the potbelly stove, simply because they became a haven for bedbugs that came out of their hiding places for their drink of blood each night.


One of the main topics of conversation in our hut was about escaping. As almost everyone in the hut had been involved in escapes, some great stories were told, how luck had turned sour when freedom was in sight. The language used to describe the escapes would have produced a classic had it been possible to tape the conversation. Colin and I could have told a similar story, but we had become so suspicious of everyone, that even here where we were certainly among friends, we would not admit we were fed by the Greek people. So other than mere outlines of some of our adventures, we did not volunteer too much about it. It seemed that everyone other than the blokes who were printing maps or making compasses, and these were blokes who had some disability that gave them slim chances of escaping, was planning an escape. Some were accumulating chocolate from their parcels and this was to be their emergency ration when tramping south hoping to join the partisans in Yugoslavia. This seemed to be the way to go according to the majority of the men we spoke to on the subject. None of them planned to escape from Stalag, but were going to volunteer to go working in camps where a successful escape was more possible. Listening to other men’s experiences of their escapes made Colin and I realise that we had a chance of getting to Yugoslavia, but first we must fatten up and get fit.


Perhaps the most amusing conversations were about ‘tossing the doctor’. Many and varied were the ways of doing this so I will only touch briefly on some of the ways. The reason for tossing the doctor was that each prisoner was given a medical grade, the general idea being that the fitter you were, the heavier the work you could be expected to do. Most blokes wanted to get a light work grading, so you tossed the doctor to get this light work grade or excused work completely. Some blokes stayed in Stalag for years by tossing the doctor. If you were out in a working camp and it was not to your liking, you tossed the doctor who attended the working camp and you were sent back to Stalag to get medical treatment. When in Stalag and you wanted to stay there for a while, you tossed the doctor who attended the Stalag. The English doctors were not involved in this racket, so when you went to the English doctors, you were genuine. Some were better at it than others and specialised in their complaints. This of course, is not to say that there were not genuinely sick men and I remember how confusing it was for me until I got the hang of what it was all about. Some of those German doctors must have lost faith in their ability to cure some of the prisoner’s complaints.


One man in the camp, we called him Dr Wheatly, but he was no more a doctor or even a medical orderly than I was, was our diagnostic expert when working out how to get a new disease that would fool the doctor. He had a doctor’s book and from this came all sorts of weird and potentially dangerous symptoms. For instance if you wanted to toss the doctor with an ulcerated stomach, first you swallowed some vinegar, available from Dr Wheatly’s surgery also in the hard case hut. When a doctor poked a tube down the man’s stomach, it showed acid so he was sent for an x-ray. Before the man was x-rayed, he would have swallowed five or six silver paper pellets, which showed on the screen as ulcers.


Another dodge was to get desert sores. All the tossing men on this carried a small jar of ointment, which had some extra ingredients added to it that made any sore it was put on, fester and spread. Those extra ingredients came from Dr Wheatly. All you did was scratch the skin where you wanted the desert sores to appear with some sandpaper or anything that would scratch until it became tender and then apply the ointment and within days the sores would be everywhere. It must have driven those German doctors mad trying to heal those sores that would not respond to treatment, for if they started to heal, on went some more ointment.


The lime and Lysol poultice was another, and I used this myself on one occasion. The poultice is put on a place on the body where it will not produce too much discomfort. It is left on for no more than four hours and by that time is giving a slight burning feeling. The poultice is then removed and you wait a few days when the skin will go black and die. Then it is possible to lift the whole piece of skin plus quite a lot of flesh under it, which has already died, thus leaving a deep hole. Strange to relate, I do not remember it being painful, though it did take a long time for the hole to fill up and the skin to grow over it. One bloke, I remember, put a poultice and quite a large one, on his forearm but left it on too long because he went to sleep. When the skin was lifted from the arm, the flesh came away leaving four inches of bone exposed. That really was a terrible sight and I doubt if it ever healed up because too much flesh had gone.


There were so many other ways of tossing the doctor that it is surprising that Dr Wheatly did not write a book on it. I am sure the medical profession would have bought every copy. One way, that I thought was dangerous, as this was playing around with the heart, was to powder an aspirin, again from Dr Wheatly’s medicine bag and rolled it into a cigarette. In no time, the heart pounded away like a steam engine. Some blokes even went to further extremes by breaking fingers and I remember one bloke who put his finger on a railway line and asked me to break it. He was determined it would be done, but I cannot remember why it was so imperative he get back to Stalag. With some misgivings I brought a pickaxe handle down on his finger. As could be expected, he said “shit” or something worse, and danced around with his hand under his arm for some time and then plucked up the courage to look at it. Unfortunately, it had been too flat on the rail and was only badly skinned and bruised, so he insisted on it being done again and this time with success. Luck was not with him, for the train taking him to stalag became snowbound and by the time he reached Stalag, they had to amputate two fingers. I mentioned this to show what extremes the blokes would go to. I know he was a braver, or sillier, man than I was.


There was no need for Colin and I to toss the doctor when we arrived at the Stalag. When we came out of the bunker we went to see the English doctor in the camp hospital and it was this doctor who told me my bones weighed six stone seven pounds which was half the weight I recorded when joining the army. I think Colin was in better shape than me for he had not been beaten up, or had a poisoned hand, which was still causing trouble, nor had he suffered toothache for two years. The doctor wanted to put us in hospital but we insisted we would be okay in the disciplinarian barrack when we were quickly making new friends. He said he would arrange for me to go to a dentist in Wolfsberg when I had put some flesh over my bones and I remember wondering why I had to wait, for those teeth were giving me a lot of pain. He did splint all the fingers on my hand to keep them straight and after about three weeks treatment on the hand; I began to believe I would get the full use of it again. By getting the fingers straight and me using my form of therapy, the hand recovered completely.


The time came when the English doctor, whose name I should remember but confess with regret that it had gone from my memory bank, sent me to the German dentist in town. I had to report to the administration block and from there a guard took me through the town to the dentist. The dentist was a jovial tubby sort of bloke who spoke a little English. After looking at the teeth, he said two would have to come out and went over to his bench of tools. After moving things around for some time, he finally selected what he wanted and tucked it under his arm so I could not see it. I thought he was a considerate man, shielding that hypodermic needle from me because I have never been keen on needles. He said “Open Vide”, and the next thing he had hold of one of the teeth and believe me, I could not have closed my mouth if I had wanted to and by the time he had the first one out I was barely conscious, so knew little of the second one coming out. I knew now why the doctor to strengthen me before this ordeal. When I could see what was happening around me again, I saw my guard wiping his face with his handkerchief and it was certainly not hot in the room, so I think he may not have enjoyed it either. Back at the barrack I was losing so much blood that someone gave me some cottonwool and I plugged the holes. I remember it was painful for many weeks after the extractions and slow to heal, but think this could have been from the poison that must have accumulated in the gums over a long period.


As the flesh began to cover our bones, Colin and I began to think of our next escape, but decided we would wait until we had to come before the German doctor again. There was a general notice board in the compound and each day there was a list on this board for prisoners to see the doctor the next day. Some blokes seemed to be able to anticipate this call to the doctor and did their toss the doctor routines in time to get an extended stay in Stalag. In Stalag XV111-A, the biggest crime a prisoner could commit was to work willingly for the Germans, but if you were outwitted and had to work, then you did as little as you possibly could. Everything was based on passive resistance, for under Geneva Conventions; prisoners could be compelled to do labouring work, but could refuse specialist work. Work camps were dotted all over Austria, some quite large camps, others serving farms were quite small. When we first arrived it was possible to pick out a camp you thought might be a good one to escape from, then volunteer to work there. There was so much coming and going by prisoners that a pattern emerged of where all the camps were, which were good or bad, or camps where you had to work hard. One camp I remember, where the prisoners disliked being sent to, was the Lavenham Dam camp. The men coming in from this camp told of the heavy work pushing wheelbarrows filled with concrete.


In our barrack I heard so many stories about this Lavenham Dam that I think it is worth mentioning here. Most blokes agreed that a lot of sabotage was carried out by the prisoners and the forced labour from occupied countries, so much so, that they would not have liked to live below the dam. They even told of a nasty guard who mysteriously disappeared under a big fill of concrete and I have no reason to doubt these stories, for they were told in confidence within the hut where all were anti German. How many times did I hear that expression, “The only good German is a dead one”, in that hut.


One prisoner who had been caught sabotaging the dam had been sentenced to death by a German military tribunal. He had asked to be given a shower before being taken away to wherever the sentence was to be carried out. When being brought back from the shower by two guards, he and the guards had been surrounded by a milling pushing mob of British prisoners and, though it may be hard to believe, that prisoner was never found by the Germans again, though for a week they turned the camp upside down. I cannot remember his name, but I do know he got back to New Zealand after the war. It could never have happened at Maunthausen but it seemed that anything was possible at XV111-A.


I did witness the result of a bet one day and I think the bet was the result of boredom. One bloke had bet another that he could get the guards to open the gates for him and he would go free. I seem to remember that one of the blokes involved was titled and the sum of money to be paid out after the end of the war was considerable. Well, the guards did open the gates and let him out, and since truth is stranger than fiction, this is going to be hard to believe.


The little English bloke, who was going out the gate, had dressed himself as a window cleaner in overalls and armed with a bucket and mop, was allowed through the first set of gates to clean windows in the administration block, or so he told the guard on the gate. That guard must have been dumb, for who cleans windows in POW camp. The window cleaner then did an act that can only be called mesmerising, for he balanced the mop on his nose with mop end up and with mop swaying and almost falling at times. He had the two guards on the second gate swaying and swinging in unison, and when he motioned with the bucket to open the second gate, the guards did this and with open mouths watched him go round, around a corner and out of sight. He was out for two days before being caught again. I hope he was paid his bet. This man did balancing acts at Stalag concerts, but I’m sure he enjoyed that act more than he did any other in later years.


I do not know how many escapes were attempted from working camps attached to XV111-A, but I remember the blokes in our hut saying that only one in two thousand attempts were successful. This was not very good odds but it should be remembered that only a small percentage of those escapes were genuine. Some did it just to get away from a particular working camp. Some did it just to break the boredom of prisoner of war life and made no serious attempt to plan and prepare in detail their escapes. Some who were genuine, who had prepared well, were just unlucky. Shorty Andrews, whose speciality was escaping as a woman told me of being propositioned by German soldiers when accepting lifts in their trucks and having to fight to preserve his maidenhood. He told the tale of how he had been close to the Yugoslavia border but because of the weather had been forced to shelter in a mountain hut and when doing his beauty treatment early in the morning, shaving, had been surprised by a mountain guide doing his round of the huts. The guide had a sense of humour but he also had a gun and that was that. Shorty blamed the weather for his capture and I knew what he meant.


Then came the day for Colin and I, when our names were on the board for us to report to the German doctor on the following morning. By this time we had fattened up and had been exercising strenuously to be fit for whatever lay ahead of us. We were keen to get to a certain camp near Marburg and were waiting for word to get back from there on its suitability for another attempt at escaping. If we were passed fit by the doctor it was certain we would be sent out to a working camp that might not suit us. Our hope was to be graded for light work, because there were so few light work camps attached to the Stalag. All men who had no teeth were graded for light work, for the Germans must have thought that if a man could not eat well then he could not work well. How they arrived at this conclusion is unknown, for if they had thought about it, the slops they served as food did not require chewing. Most of the blokes who had false teeth were graded for light work for they had taken them out, brushed their gums and reported to the doctor. This was all right for Colin as he had false teeth but I had a mouthful minus the two the dentist had taken out. Eventually another bloke in the hut said he would go down in my place. In the morning he took my identification disc and with his bare gums, I was graded toothless.


As an ex prisoner of war will tell you, the worst part about Stalag is the boredom. There was probably less boredom in our hut than the others, for we had the escapees coming in with their stories and this was usually entertaining. We had more searches than the other huts and this helped to keep us alert. We played a lot of contract bridge, which absorbed hours, sometimes half the night. We never played gambling games although we could have used the valueless Stalag money the Germans printed so that we could buy goods from the store. I can’t remember what the store sold but I would think razor blades could have been one of those items. We played a game called ‘Rickity Kate’, which provided us with many laughs. The general idea of the game was not to be caught with hearts or Rickity Kate, the Queen of Spades in your hand when the winner had managed to play out all his cards.


I know a lot of my thoughts were with my people back home for I had not heard of them in years. I had written to Betty as soon as I arrived at the camp but of course could not tell her very much. Even in letters one had to be so careful for we knew each letter was censored and Colin’s and mine maybe more than the others. The stalag had concerts that were really hilarious, especially the male chorus in ballet costumes. Surprising how much talent there was in Stalag and the blokes who provided this entertainment can never be overpraised for their efforts in taking the prisoners minds off their immediate surroundings, even if only for a short time, There were occupational courses that could be taken and I half heartedly started a course on shorthand. I would like to have written about Crete, but that was out of the question. Exercising and getting fit again took up a lot of my time. For the blokes who spent four years in a POW camp, it is a wonder they retained their sanity. The blokes out in the working camps seemed to fare better. The most boring thing to do there was not working when you wanted to do something. Leaning on a shovel in freezing cold is a hard way to win a war.


A typical day in Stalag started with “Raus Raus”, and out of the bunk to go on the parade to be counted. There were a few days during the winter when the weather was so cold that it could have produced fatalities if everyone had been paraded in the open. On these days, the guards attempted to count us in our huts, and this only provided us with entertainment but had the guards tearing their hair out. I sure did learn a lot of German swear words on those days and some of the really choice ones being reserved for our hut. They had no show of getting an accurate count and they knew it, but it filled in a lot of the day and strangely enough, it helped to keep us warm on those freezing days. We paraded on good and wet days on the open area where sometimes they played soccer and other sports. Instead of parading as huts, we paraded in our medical grades and on most mornings this was a farce too. Each day the camp commandant, named Steiner would, through the camp interpreter, deliver a speech and of course no one listened to him but would carry on with their own conversations. Some of the blokes who had known him for years said he was not a bad bloke but until I found he had a sense of humour, and we will come to this part, I had reservations. Some days he would swoop on a medical group and surround it with guards and take the whole lot to the administration block, then spend the rest of the day sorting out the blokes who had paraded in their wrong medical group. When he did this he would want to find enough fit men out of all the self-professed crocks to fill a quota to send to a working camp.


The only blokes safe from this treatment were the LZ’s as they were known, though what the letters stood for I have not a clue. These were men who had tossed the doctor and were waiting for repatriation and there were genuine cases among them with missing limbs. I knew one Gisborne bloke named Bunty Shaw, but I am not sure if he was ever repatriated or had to wait until the end of the war. For us fit blokes who did not want to go out to work, it was a matter of deciding which group you would parade with each morning and hope it would not be the one Steiner would swoop on. Colin and I were lucky we did not have to worry about this for the first three months, but once we were graded toothless, we could never be sure that we would be sent to a light working camp. Some days the parade took hours, for with the prisoners shifting positions all the time, they were never sure of the count. I think by these sudden swoops they were hoping to find that man under death sentence, but I think his identity had been changed and he was out working on a farm where he could never be found.


After the parade you were free to do what you liked, but we disciplinarians could expect a raid at any time, even during the night. I am sure the guards knew it was hopeless and would have preferred to be in bed because while the search was going on, they really copped the raspberry from the tenants. It could never have happened at Maunthausen. It amazed me after Maunthausen to see how much cheek and abuse the German guards tolerated. It could be taken too far and did happen in the Stalag on one occasion, though I did not see it as I was in the bunker at the time.


According to the blokes who did witness it, and it happened down outside the administration block, this Aussie bloke had been provoking one of the older guards until he was in a frenzy and likely to lose control of his emotions. Although warned by his mates that he was taking it too far, the Aussie persisted and even pulled his shirt open to show the guard where he was to shoot. That is exactly where the guard shot, the one bullet killing him. He had just pushed the guard over the edge. After the event, there was a big fuss and inquiry by the Red Cross Representatives and the guard was probably sent to the Russian Front. Before the war, I had always thought the German race to be stolid and unemotional so it was a surprise to find that they could lose control of themselves when the odds were stacked on their side. They could not take ridicule and yet if they could only have seen how ridiculous they looked at times through our eyes, then their attitude may have changed. To we colonials and to the Tommies, the German sense of humour was so heavy that it was not humour at all.


I cannot recall any other stories of P.O.W’s being shot in this manner by the normal guards and considering the number of escapes that were made, I think this unusual. Sabotage carried a death penalty and this was decided by military tribunal but not always carried out, even less as the war went on. Sex penalties were severe, five to ten years in a civilian prison or a concentration camp and you could say that was a death penalty. Opportunities for sex did occur and the sex drive being what it is, caused many men to take risk. There were little or no opportunities for sex in the larger working camps, but out on the smaller camps serving the farms where fraternisation was less restricted, sex was easier to find.


Some prisoners did commit suicide by deliberately getting themselves shot by climbing over the wire. These blokes became known as “wire happy”. They were mostly blokes who had not tried to develop an interest in any of the activities within the camp, who had got in an apathetic state through boredom and then one day their mind would snap and they would just scream and run at the wire and climb it. Or perhaps someone would get bad news from home, that a wife was having a child to an American serviceman. The trauma of such tidings magnified in a P.O.W. camp, but that was another cause for suicides. The strange thing was that none tried to cut their throats but all tried for that honourable death by being shot by the enemy. There were probably many more reasons for suicide.



The British compound had a “Dear John” section on the noticeboard and this was so well covered with infidelity letters, that it was hard to find a space to place a letter. One side of the board was reserved for back copies and there were many hundreds in this file. It might be thought that having a man’s misfortunes exposed to the rest of the Stalag was unwise, but as I had my “Dear John” letter while there, I cannot agree. It made a man face up to something that was a fact, a reality that could not be ignored and allowed to fester and it gave the other men a chance to help you. To the other men who were not concerned, it gave them something to read and to be truthful, some of the letters were quite humorous and humour was a rare commodity in Stalag. Once a man put his “Dear John” on the board, it made it possible for his friends to keep an eye on him until he could recover from the shock. It was the man who bottled it up who became “wire happy”.


I know how devastating those letters can be, for after some time in Stalag and the excitement of knowing that any day you would receive mail from New Zealand, I did get a letter from Betty. It was not the first letter to hand, this coming from my mother who informed me they had to let the house go because they could not keep up the payments and the previous owner had taken it back. I had been missing for so long that it seemed impossible I could still be alive and that payments from the army had ceased. This was bad news, but it was not the end of the world. The rest of the family were okay and all had shifted to Ormond but to a different farm. Ormond had always been a haven to my family and I could understand their concern over the loss of my house.


It was some weeks later before I received the letter from Betty and it was very brief but I will always remember one sentence in it, “Therefore, I cannot possibly marry a man who is so cowardly to become a prisoner of war”. To say I was stunned would be putting it mildly, I was devastated. All the time on Crete, in Maunthausen, right up until the time I received that letter, Betty had been an anchor to my thoughts for the future and now I did not have that anchor. I could not believe that anyone could be so cruel, to send such a letter to a person who had suffered the privations I had. As I stabilised from the shock, for a while I tried to make excuses for her words, but I could not believe that the public of New Zealand could be so ill informed, that in this new war there was dishonour in being a prisoner of war. I could have forgiven her if she had said that she believed me to be dead and had another man in her life or was married. This would have been a logical sequence to the missing years, but to be accused of being a coward was in itself being cowardly. There did not have to be that excuse.


I showed the letter to Colin and to two other Gisborne men and they said I should put it on the “Dear John” board. Before I did this, I took it to John Legerwood who was the Stalag padre. What qualifications John had to be a padre, I do not know, but prior to capture he had been the YMCA man to my battalion. In Stalag, John carried out dual roles as he was also the intelligence officer and no doubt passed on what information prisoners coming into the camp could gather on their train journeys. The information would have been considerable and providing the intelligence got to the right people would have been accurate and enlightening. When we came from Maunthausen we were able to give him some limited information, but our Crete experiences we kept very much to ourselves and I think John was a little offended by this.


The reason I had taken the letter to John was because I thought that someone who could write such a letter must have been getting bad information. He agreed that something should be done about it and in his padre role would see what he could do. A letter did catch up with me some six months later receiving the first, in which Betty did apologise for that first letter but without giving an explanation why she had written it, asked forgiveness. However, I did not want a repeat of that hurt again and did not answer the letter.


Colin was luckier than me with his mail and all his family were well, though some of his brothers had gone into various armed services. Since he had six brothers and six sisters, this seemed to be an army in itself. It made life more bearable being able to receive mail from New Zealand, for parcels and papers started to arrive. I remember my old employers, the Colonial Mutual Life, sent me appreciated parcels of books, which of course were passed around. Jim Eddy also sent books until he was called into the army when he became of age.


By the time mail arrived for us, we had both put on a lot of weight and were now awaiting the arrival of spring to have our next shot at escaping. We had decided to go south and try to get down through Yugoslavia even if it meant joining the partisans. If we were going to do this we had to get ourselves fit and from that time on our efforts were on preparing ourselves for the big event for we knew how essential it was to be fit.


So while waiting for spring, we made the best of Stalag life. I admit I was downcast for a short time after getting Betty’s letter, but with the aid of my friends, I recovered my sense of humour and in time was even able to make a joke of my misfortunes. Colin and I became good at contract bridge and spent many hours at this absorbing game. I tried a course on shorthand but found I was not gifted in that direction, so that course became a very short one. I gave lectures on how to survive in cold conditions as well as warm, based on my own experiences, but had the feeling they were more entertaining than enlightening. I noticed a lot of wrinkled noses when I said that snails, hedgehogs and dandelions were edible and told of how to prepare them. It is enough to say that I found plenty to do to keep boredom away.


People have asked me about homosexuality in the camp as if this was widespread. “Bum scuttling” or “bum pushing”, as it was termed in the camp, had no interest to me at all. I could not fancy sinking my “pride and glory” into a dirty stinking orifice that was not designed for the purpose. It was unnatural and abhorrent. That a certain amount of “bum scuttling” did go on it cannot be denied but it was certainly not widespread. In our hut I only knew of two men who must have derived pleasure from it, one of them deriving more than pleasure from it for he charged a pack of cigarettes a time and as the cigarettes had to be “Peter Jackson’s”, he became known as Peter Jackson.  As he performed his “profession” in our cluster of thirty bunks and he had an outside corner one, we could count the number of cigarettes he was getting by the shaking of the cluster of beds when he was at work. Sometimes the shaking was quite severe and we knew then that he had a very vigorous “client”. Perhaps this was the reason why the bunk beside him was always empty. The action always took place at night and I think most of his clients came from outside our hut. The only other bloke in the hut that I knew did “bum scuttling” was a sailor from one of the ships sunk near Greece, but he was a giver, not a taker, he said.


Tom Laurance from our combine came under suspicion of being a “bum pusher” and a daylight one too, when from his bunk right up on top near the wall, he began to make the cluster of bunks shake. Tom was married to a beautiful wife, according to him, and when his hair started to depart from his head, Tom thought his wife would disown him if he went bald. To try and save his hair, he would brush vigorously at his hair with two brushes for an hour each day, but I think it was all in vain.


Most of the prisoners in the Stalag had been captured in Greece, that is, the British prisoners. They were from England, the British Isles, New Zealand and Australia. Other compounds, from which we were isolated, or were supposed to be, held Russians, French, Serbians and later when the Italians capitulated, Italians. I have no idea how many the Stalags housed because most of the prisoners were out at working camps, but I think it would have been a large Stalag. Other than the men in my own hut, I knew very few from the other huts in the camp.


I remember Frank Chitty from Gisborne who I think helped Ted Hardy, also from Gisborne, with map printing. Ted had a bad hernia and this kept him in Stalag where he did a great job on those maps. When the prisoners had first arrived in Austria, many of the railway carriages had road and railway maps on the walls and these soon became escape maps. Because so many prisoners were caught after escaping with these copied maps and homemade compasses, the Germans knew they were being done in the Stalag, but in spite of this, they never found where or how.


Every morning after the count, the newsreader would come to each hut and read the news from the BBC to the tenants. This was received from the radio smuggled into the camp. I knew of two of them, one in our hut, yet I don’t think the Germans ever found them. The radios could have been smuggled in piece-by-piece and assembled in the camp. It meant we were up to date with the British news but this was not the only news we received. At various points around the camp, loud speakers blared out the German news and propaganda, always accompanied by patriotic, military music. One thing about listening to the two lots of news, it taught you to analyse the propaganda content.


When spring came, Colin and I thought we were ready to get out of Austria. We felt we were as fit as we were ever going to be in Stalag. My hand was back to normal or almost normal; though the skin on it had a funny looking colour and I think this was due to a lack of sun on it. We had decided to volunteer to go to a working camp near the town of Marburg and the camp was not far from the Yugoslav border. Then, just before we were due to volunteer, we changed our minds and made a cock up by deciding that only one of us should go to the camp and get word back to the other if it was a suitable camp. There may have been several reasons for making this decision. That we were afraid of the people who controlled the volunteering becoming suspicious if we volunteered together would have been the main reason. Another reason could have been that it would have been difficult for both of us to “toss the doctor” if the camp was unsuitable. Anyway, having made the decision, we now drew straws as to who should go, and Colin won the honour.


As it turned out for me, it could not have been a worse decision, for when I got word back from Colin some two weeks later brought in from a sick man from the camp in letter form, saying to get down there as soon as possible, the Germans had decided to do away with volunteering for work camps and instead of being sent to Marburg, I was sent to a new camp that had been built near a town called Leitsen. This was way up in the Alps and was bitterly cold after the spring in Stalag. One hundred and twenty men were sent to this camp and I can’t tell you a lot about it for I was only there one day before I escaped.


It would be truthful to say that the escape was not a genuine one and was done more with the intention of getting back to Stalag and starting again. I decided to do it before the camp got into a routine and the guards became alert to escapes. Ten of us took advantage of their lack of experience of guarding British prisoners, cut a hole through the single fence and scattered. I was not prepared for the escape, and did not have a compass or map and was unsure of where the camp was situated.


I knew roughly the direction of Yugoslavia but it was a long way away. I kept to the high country as much as possible during the nights but realised I would starve and get nowhere if I kept doing this. I had been out three days and found I was not as fit as I thought I might be. On the first day that I attempted travelling during the daytime, I walked into a trap set by two policemen. Someone had seen me and warned them.


They treated me very well, I think they thought it a joke, took me down to their lockup where they gave me a meal and showed me off to some of the locals. Later a soldier, possibly a home guard, took me to a town where all the escaped prisoners in Austria were interrogated. I can’t remember the name of this centre yet should, for I heard it mentioned so many times. Here, I was searched and placed in a bunker and again my sovereign survived by being in my mouth. I was not too concerned about all this as the blokes back at he disciplinarian hut had told me that it was just a matter of form being interrogated at this centre, and all you had to do was to tell them that it was your duty to escape, and they just send you back to Stalag to do your time in the bunker.


However, it was not like that for me when I went into the questioning room. There were two men whose ranks I cannot remember, one had a great thick dossier in front of him and he soon let me know it was mine. This had me worried because I had thought that now I was an official P.O.W, I would start off with a clean sheet. They gave me a pretty hard time for about two hours and I was pleased I was an old hand at interrogations, for these two men were a lot brighter than some I had met before. When they had finished I was taken back to my cell and then later a Gestapo bloke had a go at me and he was interested in my activities on Crete, which made me pleased we had been so close-mouthed about our life there. However, he seemed to lose interest when he found that I had been a prisoner for over nine months. Something must have happened on Crete about this time and I would like to have reversed the role and interrogated the interrogator to find out what it was.


Two days later, I had another questioning by the same two men of the first day, and at the end of this was given a stern warning that I could not expect such good treatment next time I escaped for I was likely to finish up in Maunthausen again. I had become used to German bluffing, but somehow this time I thought they could be serious. The fact that I was not sharing a cell and no one to swap notes with may have made me think seriously about what they had said. I know I made a mental resolution that if I made another attempt to escape; it would have to be successful and no more of these half-baked efforts. They kept me there for two more days and then with two other escapers, we were sent back to Wolfsberg. When comparing notes with the other blokes, I found their interrogation was a piece of cake in comparison with mine.


Back in Stalag, we were put in a bunker to do our twenty-one days solitary which was the normal penalty for escaping. When I protested that I had already done six days, they let me out in fifteen. From the bunker you could hear the German radio blaring out the news and the bloke bringing the food, which was not too bad when supplemented with the other food coming through the window, gave us British news. It was while I was in there that I heard of the Aussie bloke being shot. One other item of news in the form of a note, which really upset me, came with food through the window. It was to tell me that the partisans had taken the camp where Colin Ratcliffe was working, and one hundred and twenty odd prisoners had been taken from the camp by the partisans. I could have cried at my bad luck. Colin told me after the war that it was a pretty tough experience, and two of the prisoners had been killed when they had to fight their way through to the Adriatic Coast and then to Italy.


 Now I had to replan and I wanted to do it on my own for if I took on a mate and we failed, I was not sure what would happen. I also had to think about whether it was worth escaping for some of the news made it seem that the war would be over in a few months. Certainly the tide had turned. At that time there was a lot of talk about the Hitler redoubt area where he was going to hold important prisoners while he negotiated a peace settlement. Rumour had it that it was going to be in the Salzburg district and men coming in from a camp near a place called Markt Pongau were saying this could be the redoubt for there was a lot of work going on there building a huge camp.


Once out of the bunker and in the disciplinarian hut again, I found I was still graded toothless which had an advantage in that this grading seemed to be a permanent grading and therefore was not on regular call-ups to the doctor. The only snag was trying to anticipate which medical classification the Commandant would swoop on in the mornings. Some blokes seemed to have an instinct for this and one even bragged he had not made a mistake in six months, so I decided that since he was so much more experienced than me, I would tag along with the group he was choosing. Maybe I put a hoodoo on him, for I had not been out of the bunker three weeks when Steiner swooped on the toothless with me silently congratulating myself on my wisdom or my mentors ability to pick the right group. The following morning it seemed the right thing to parade with the toothless since they had copped it the day before. Whether Steiner noted that the toothless group seemed to be bigger that morning and this influenced his decision to swoop again on the group is something I will never know.


We were herded through the gate into the administration block area and here lined up while Steiner walked along the rows and made each man open his mouth to see if he had teeth. When Steiner found that eighty percent of the men he inspected had their own teeth, he really did have a good laugh and proved he had a sense of humour. Of course some of the men, through their other medical grades, managed to get away from the working party but I could not do this.


I suppose Steiner’s job, or part of his duties, would have been to keep a turnover of workers going out at least at as a fast a rate as they were coming in. With the tricks being played on him by the prisoners, it was only fair that he should be allowed to play some back. It was just unfortunate that I was caught in this trick. That morning, he caught over one hundred men to send out to a working camp.


Each man was escorted back to his hut where he picked up his belongings and said farewell to his combine, then taken back to the assembly block ready for transportation. We were sent to Graz by rail but I cannot recall any details of the journey so it must have been uneventful.


This Work Camp was probably 107/GW

 The camp at Graz was quite a large one holding about twelve hundred prisoners doing labouring work around the city. It had a small hospital run by an English doctor and this made it hard to toss the doctor to get back to Stalag, for most ailments had to be seen by the English doctor before he sent you on to the German who could send you back to Stalag. Some blokes managed to do this, but they had a flair for this type of escapade, something I did not possess. To them it was just something they had to do; it was their challenge, better than stagnating in one place until they became wire happy.


Once I had settled at Graz, I enjoyed the extra freedom it allowed and even here, the camp had an illegal radio, making it possible for the BBC news to be circulated to the men each day. It was a change not to hear the Stalag loud speakers blaring out propaganda even if no one listened to it. I am sure that if the camp had not been to my taste, I would have done something about it. It seemed a good place to be, the huts were new and not overcrowded, were clean, unlike Stalag where the bedbugs were rampant. I don’t remember any bedbugs at Graz. There was not a lot of pressure to work hard, though this was not the fault of the guards, whose favourite word seemed to be “abeit”, meaning work. Those guards at times must have felt like pulling their hair out trying to get the British prisoners to work hard. You had to hand out congratulations to the prisoners, for they did have the art of not working perfected.


One incident I remember clearly because it involved myself. Six prisoners had begun a discussion with one of the guards, a simple debate about Hitler being “no good”. The debate went on for over an hour and then the guard realised he had six prisoners who had done nothing for a long time and ordered the men back to work. For some reason, those prisoners who had been debating the demerits of Hitler in understandable German, suddenly did not know what the guard was saying because they could not understand German.


My first job there was working with a gang of twenty, or was it fifty, digging reservoirs to hold water for use in case of air raids by the Allies. Most of the air raids by the Allies at that time were aimed more at Germany than targets in Austria, although the marshalling yards at Graz received the odd minor raid. All British prisoners were instructed by their M.O.C’s not to accept contract work. Contract work meant you were allocated so much work to do each day and when this was finished you returned to camp. A great deal of pressure was put on prisoners to accept contract work, with extra rations being a further inducement. Other forced labour brought into Germany had accepted contract work, but we felt we were in a different category, being soldiers not civilians. It seemed the city administrators had to pay for our labour, and our result of one reservoir completed against ten by other workers, was not popular with them. Eventually the P.O.W. labour was sacked by the administrators and to the prisoners, this was a battle won rather than the shame the Germans felt we should feel.


Silly as it may sound, trying not to work is hard work. New Zealanders of that era were accustomed to working hard and scratching around with a shovel giving the appearance you were doing something constructive, required no mental or physical effort at all. If it had been a simple matter of leaning on the shovel all day, at least the stance could have been altered several times during the day to break the monotony. The guards, usually elderly men, possibly from the First World War, did not approve of leaning on shovels, so other tactics were formulated. On a very cold day when physical exercise would have been welcomed to reduce the cold, doing nothing became very hard work. The policy was simple, every shovel full helped the German effort, so do as few shovels full as it is possible to do without bringing physical violence on one’s self. It was a form of passive resistance.


My next job was working on the tramway on the line going out to Marie Troste. The trams did not only carry passengers, but also drew wagons of chips or coal and we prisoners were expected to unload them. Again the Germans had reason to believe that British prisoners were the laziest workers on earth. We were so slow at unloading the wagons that they started to pile up and a crisis developed. To overcome this, the Germans brought in Russian women workers to shame us into doing better. Those Germans did not understand us; we did not have any shame. Then they brought in edicts that so many men had to unload so many wagons before they could go back to camp. It made no difference, other than fewer wagons were unloaded. They tried keeping the Russian women back as well even though they had finished their quota. This created friction between the women and the prisoners for a while, but once we got our attitude over to them, they were on our side. It could not last of course, and more pressure was put on the women and to avoid this pressure, the women unloaded our wagons as well. These Russian women were huge women, made to look even bigger by the padded clothing they wore. I don’t know how the other blokes felt, but to me they were not sexually attractive, possibly because of the odour they exuded and the feeling that one big sexual hug from one of these would have broken every bone in the body.


Since the city administrators also ran the tramway and our work was unsatisfactory, again we got the sack. To be truthful, I was sorry we were sacked from the tramway job. I had heard that the church at Marie Troste was a tourist attraction and felt an effort by me should be made to see it. I worked on one of the guards for some time and eventually he took me to the church. It was a lovely church and I can say I am pleased I have seen it. Although it was not of my religion, being Catholic, I still remember the feeling of tranquillity I felt while being in the church. The guard took me twice to the church and then because he saw I was so impressed, allowed me to go on my own after that. However, I did not always go to the church but did a few discreet wanders through the trees that surround Marie Troste. I saw enough to convince me that an escape from here would be unlikely to succeed but cannot remember all the reasons why it would fail.


Marie Troste was the terminal of the tramway and from where we unloaded the wagons; we could look up into an office where two good-looking girls worked. Because they were so easy on the eye, I was always glancing up there and on the odd occasion, did get a smile from the blonde girl there. Then one day I ate some chocolate where they could see it. At that time, the civilian population were suffering a shortage of some luxuries, especially chocolate and the purpose of my eating the chocolate was to show that the English, even prisoners, could get the luxuries they were deprived of. It caused something to happen that I had not remotely anticipated.


While sitting in the church one day, I heard someone come into the church and sit behind me. I was going to leave to avoid startling whoever it was, when a gentle tap on my shoulder made me turn around and the blonde girl was there and she seemed to be even better looking up close than from a distance. We had a short talk and arranged to meet in the woods the next day and I would bring her some chocolate in return for some favours. Even though I spoke little German, and she only knew a few words of English, it seemed that language is no barrier to arranging sex at this level. I had no chocolate when we met, but brought a cake of scented soap and this was accepted instead.


I would not have mentioned this incident here if it had not given me one of the worst scares of my life. We had chosen a secluded spot under an overhanging bank, but I did not know that a path ran along the top of the bank, and although seldom used, was on this day used by two SS officers who stopped directly over us and urinated over the bank, splashing us, giving me, if not the girl, one hell of a fright. Fortunately they moved on without knowing we were there. I never arranged to meet the girl again, although she was keen and we only spoke to each other twice more in the church. That fright had brought home to me the consequences of illicit love in enemy country. If we had been discovered on that occasion, I am sure those officers would have shot me there and then and never waited for a trial. I thought that was too high a price to pay irrespective of the beauty of the girl.


By the time we were sacked from the tramway job, air raids by the Allies were becoming a daily occurrence on the marshalling yards at Graz, so when we were shifted to the marshalling yards to fill in bomb craters; it was not a popular decision for us. We did complain to the Swiss representatives but to no avail because as they said, it was pick and shovel work. For a start, all sorts of dodges were invented to avoid this work, but in time the whole camp was doing it. When on the job and the sirens sounded, all the prisoners made a dash for the air raid shelters and shared these with the civilian population. In the shelters we could tell by the thumps whether it was a big raid or not. When we became used to the raids and realised that bombs do not discriminate between friends and foe, we used to go the opposite side of the yards and up a hill and have a grandstand view of the carnage the bombs were causing. The odd bomb did over run and land on the hill, but most of us thought it worthwhile to take the risk. As the raids intensified, it became unsafe to go to the air raid shelters because the civilians were now taking umbrage at “Englander Swinehund” sharing their shelters.


Some of the raids involved hundreds of planes, Flying Fortresses, we were told by newly arrived prisoners. In line with our passive resistance policies, we did not return to work after the sirens had sounded the all clear, but turned up again when it was time to go back to the camp. On the odd day when air raids did not occur, we still did not achieve much for the Germans, in spite of the fact that they had organised us into fifty men gangs who were supposed to fill in so many bomb craters per day. They had Frenchmen, Greek, Italians, Russians and even gangs of women doing the same work, these workers being forced labour. The British became known as the work dodgers and became proud of the title.


As the war ground on, the air raid sirens seemed to be going day and night, the Americans bombing during the day and the British at night. You would have thought from the tonnage of bombs falling from the skies that the war would finish any day. Not only were the marshalling yards copping it, but also the city of Graz was taking severe damage. I remember one day, after a heavy bombing raid on the city, our gang of fifty were taken from the yards to open an air raid shelter in the city. Because we knew there were women and children in there, there was no lack of willingness on our part to clear the access to the shelter. When we had it clear, an officer went in, came out, and we went to the other end of the shelter in another street. Here we again opened the shelter. The reason I remember it so well is because we closed both openings without taking a body out. According to the German officer, there was no one alive in there so they just sealed them in. Whether the bodies were taken out later, I have no knowledge, but I have mentioned it here to show how horrific the bombing was on the civilians. It was impossible not to have sympathy for the women and children but I could not help but think it was retribution for the way their menfolk had treated the occupied countries and I could not forget Maunthausen.


I also remember one troop train that was caught loaded with troops in the marshalling yard and I have never been able to understand why the troops had to stay in the train and not allowed to take shelter. Perhaps they were a penal battalion and could not be trusted to leave the train. Anyway, the train was pulverised and for days, arms, legs and even heads were going into bomb craters as filling without the guards knowing of it and it was not only the prisoners who were doing it. They had steel shelters too that held one man whose duty it was to stay on the yards and prevent looting. They were just an upright steel tube with a door to it and why they put men in them is a mystery, for every time they opened the door, the body fell out, dead from blast.


Before the bombing became heavy, when marching through the streets of Graz to some unremembered destination, one of the leaders in our column would point to some imaginary object along the road and the rest of the column would curve around to it some blokes pointing to it. After we had passed, it amused us to see the civilians on the footpaths race out to see what we had been pointing at. When the bombing intensified however, we did not dare play tricks like that for the population had suffered a lot and would now come out on the street and spit at us. It could have been because we were now marching, although prisoners, as a victorious army. Perhaps we were showing the arrogance that the Germans had shown when they were winning the war.


Because of the number of raids each day, the Germans were getting no repair work done on the marshalling yards at all, so they decided to do the work at night. Naturally this did not meet with the approval of the P.O.Ws but the Germans were becoming touchy at this stage of the war and you had to be a little careful how you handled them. They now knew they had lost the war but did not know how to end it for they were controlled by a megalomaniac who said there could be no surrender. According to the Geneva Conventions they were within their rights to have work done at night for the conventions only specified the number of hours that could be worked in one day, but not the actual time of day. When the MOC recommended that the camp refuse to work at night, he was actually proposing open mutiny and the German authorities could never allow the prisoners to get away with this.


To me this was obvious and I propounded my views to the M.O.C. whose name I cannot remember. Because I was going to suffer with the others over this stupid decision, I went around the other huts in the camp and said that only passive resistance should be observed with the minimum of work done, even if it was at night.


The inevitable did happen and since the camp guards could not control us, they set the SS troopers on us. The SS had barracks not far from our camp and they only needed an excuse such as we gave them to practise their savagery. They burst into the camp with machine guns and insulated wire whips and it would be true to say that not one man in the camp that night missed getting stokes from those whips. Everything was done at the double and you would say we were back in Maunthausen. Out on the road we were made to run to the marshalling yards and as we ran past the heaps of tools we each received a boot up the bum. It was all very undignified. I think the worst indignity was that the SS were Dutch, with German officers. I have always eyed Dutch people with some suspicion since that night.


To the credit of the prisoners, they did not achieve a better result as far as work output was concerned, for although any man caught stopping work got a whack from the whips, the SS did not notice how the work was being done. All they were interested in was that everybody was working. They did not notice that as men were shovelling earth into the craters, others down in the crater were throwing it out. The fact that it was night made it possible to do this. After having run all the way back to the camp at the end of work, you could say that there were a lot of tired men when back in camp. Even the SS must have been tired with all the waving, beating, shouting and screaming they had done all night.


I knew how I felt and I was determined I would not go through that again. The next night was a repeat of the previous night when they whipped everyone out on to the road, but this time leaving men in the hospital. This time when out on the road, I threw a faint and collapsed on the road. I heard the blokes near me telling an SS trooper that I was sick, “crank”, they said. Then I received a kick in the ribs that I thought must have broken ten of them, but did not dare make a move even though the pain was excruciating. After a lot more excited German jabbering, two of our blokes picked me up and took me back into the camp and to the hospital. After they had laid me on a bed, they too jumped into a bed, while the doctor said, “For God’s sake, keep your eyes closed”. I heard some shouting in German and could then hear the running of feet to the marshalling yards. The doctor then attended to me. He said, “If you were bludging before, you are not bludging now, I think at least two of your ribs are broken”. And to think that some blokes broke fingers to get back to Stalag, for I was certain I would be going back there.


It did not work out that way, for the doctor told me he would send me there when this mutiny thing had ended, but two days later without my sanction I was elected the new M.O.C for the camp. It would be honest to say I did not want the job and it had come as a complete surprise, I still had thoughts of escape and going back to Stalag was going to get me nearer to my goal. However, the doctor felt I had a duty to perform at the same time amending his diagnosis of broken ribs to cracked ribs. So I accepted the job ungraciously, but from the very first day I found I had so many challenges that I had no time to be bored and gradually thoughts of escape were put in the background.


The first thing I negotiated with the camp Commandant, whose name I can’t remember, was to end the mutiny and the camp to get back to normality without the SS. This I was able to achieve that very day, and even for the men to have a rest night as a sign of good faith. Up until this time, the men had worked every night of the week, but by using a roster system it was now possible to give each man a night off once a week, although I tried hard for two. It was hard to deal with a man who held all the trump cards in that, when you pushed him too hard, he threatened the SS. Even so, we had gained some ground and to show how much we were displeased with the treatment we had received, ten percent of the prisoners escaped and I encouraged them to do this at the time. Had I not been M.O.C, I would have gone myself had my ribs healed.


As M.O.C I had a room to myself, which I decided to share with my interpreter, an English bloke who had a German sounding name. I seem to vaguely remember he held some high rank as an N.C.O. He was a good interpreter but we had little in common and this may have been a good thing because I believe if you are a decision maker, it is not advisable to have too many close friends. We did have a major confrontation a few weeks before the end of the war when he tried to use rank on me, but came a bad second on that one. Perhaps because of my reserve, I did not make many friends although I seemed to be popular with the men. I amaze myself that I can remember so few names from the camp.


There was Ray Teitjen who was from Gisborne and I suppose it is natural to be friendlier with men from your own hometown. Against my earnest advice, Ray escaped about three weeks before the end of the war and can say that he beat me by six weeks getting to England. Ben Wilson from Invercargill, was another I was closely associated with, but more of him later. George, whose second name eludes me, was another close associate and the reason I cannot remember his surname, is that I have not heard of him since the end of the war.


Like most prison camps in Germany, we had our German snoopers and one in particular became a pain in the neck. He found two of the three tunnels going out from the camp and then later found another one that had been started. As M.O.C I knew of these tunnel activities and encouraged them provided they were used for the right purposes. The ‘Rat’ we called him, actually looked like one and many and varied were the tricks we used to have him sent to the Russian Front. He never made it there, but the result ultimately was the same. The prisoners fed him a little information of something going on at the marshalling yards and he took the bait and went snooping there one night. The Commandant informed me the next morning, that the Rat had not reported for duty and could have deserted. We had told the other guards that he was thinking of doing this to avoid reprisals by the prisoners at the end of the war. That same day, I was also told of a record ‘short’ time being taken to fill in a bomb crater by one of the prisoners. The finer details I never tried to find out.


It was obvious that Germany could not withstand the pulverising it was getting on both fronts, and with German cities being flattened, something had to move. At that time we were sure we would be released by the Russians and to me, for a while, it did not make much difference, but then stories started to filter back that if you were taken by the Russians you stood a good chance of being shot or being held for months after the war. Neither prospect had much going for it, so from then on I recommended caution with escapes, as I felt no one should die at this stage of the war. Some of the blokes had been prisoners for four years, some for five. It was unthinkable to have these men killed now.


I remember one of the satisfying events that took place towards the end of the war and before we left Graz and went on our walk. This was the bombing of the SS barracks so close to us. This was done by the R.A.F. and as if an answer to our prayers, they made a good job of it. Although their barracks were close to our camp and I think being placed there to make them safe from bombing, we had confidence in the R.A.F., so when the flare was dropped and it was obvious who was going to be the target, many men did not go to the slit trenches but stood and watched all the fireworks. In the morning there was just a smouldering mess where the SS barracks once stood. I think we all hoped the casualties were heavy and we never heard of a plane coming down. Many of the men working at the marshalling yards did not get a close view of this most satisfying raid, but we blokes left in the camp sure gave a blow by blow description.


Being in the camp during the daytime gave the blokes a good chance to see the raids being carried out by the American Air Force. It was a great sight to see those armadas of planes coming over, some heading off to bomb Vienna Neustadt and its industries, while others concentrated on Graz. I never tried to count them, but I am sure I have seen as many as one thousand planes up there at one time and that truly was an awesome sight. Little glints of silver told us they were being harassed by fighters and of course there was always the ‘ack-ack’. The most number of planes I ever saw shot down on one raid was fifteen. The planes just seemed to lurch out of formation and loose control. None seemed to dive directly at the ground. We tried to count the parachutes that came out of each plane and would become quite upset when perhaps only two parachutes would blossom. Even though those airmen were coming down with a parachute, we knew that some of their adventures were just beginning. When the war was almost over, some of those shot down were brought to our camp, but I was rarely allowed access to them.


I must confess we did not trust the daylight raids as much as we did the ones carried out at night by the British. The reason for this was that some planes jettisoned their bombs well away from the target. We were only an hour’s march from the marshalling yards so this would put us less than four miles from the target. Because most of the prisoners had been working or lazing through the night, they needed their sleep, so it was always a worry that one-day bombs would land in the camp. If there was a heavy raid on during the day, most of the blokes who had worked during the night, would doze in the slit trenches, which was the only shelter provided by the Germans.


It did happen one day and gave a bloke a fright he will never forget. About five bombs landed in the camp and although not a lot of damage was done to the huts, the bombs mostly landing on open ground, one did land on our toilet. Unfortunately for one man, he was sitting on the throne at the time and it could only have been a miracle he was not killed. He was lucky that there was about two feet of snow on the ground and this saved his life. When the shock and flurry of having bombs land in the camp had subsided, a search was made for casualties and it was noticed that a foot was protruding from under a huge slab of concrete that had been the floor of the toilet. The bloke was dug out as quickly as possible and his first words when dragged clear became a joke in the camp for some time. “I’ll never get constipated again”. There were other narrow escapes and some minor wounds, magnified of course, to get back to Stalag, but I cannot recall any deaths and feel sure that if there had been any, I would have remembered.

Markt Pongau

 It was not long after this that we started our march to get away from the approaching armies. They were still a long way off and we began to think there might have been an ulterior motive. Most of the men expressed relief at a chance to get away from the marshalling yards and there can be no doubt that there was considerable danger in working there. There was no hope of shifting us by train, for trains were prime targets for aircraft and operated on a stop-start basis. To be truthful, I actually enjoyed the walk, for it was more of a walk than a march, perhaps because of the challenge of organisation. I have spoken to other returned men who were on that march and they have no memories of hunger but found the cold at the beginning of the march hard to tolerate. I have also spoken to other men who were on similar marches up in Germany and their stories make me realise how fortunate we were to be in Austria.


I remember I was busy before we started the march, encouraging the men to eat less and store their food for what lay ahead. No one gave orders in such circumstances, it being a case of leading by suggestion. Many men did not want to leave the camp and I thought this was fair enough, that they had a right to make these decisions. Not all could stay, but we used the hospital as a reason for leaving a large number behind. Many were the arguments I used to the Commandant and finally, two hundred men were left there. “They will have to be left here or sent back to Stalag for they are not fit enough to walk”, I said.


Another thing I impressed on the blokes around that period was to intimidate the guards in a discreet way. Because we had been subject to so much propaganda it was now our turn to turn this knowledge to our advantage and frighten the guards into a greater degree of cooperation. It should be remembered that the guards were old men, the young men being at the Fronts. So the strategy was to ask the guards what would happen when the Russians came, or the British or the Americans. You look after me and I will look after you when this happens. Some of the guards had already become afraid of us, for some of their number had been sent to the Russian front on trumped up charges that the prisoners had manufactured. I also advise the men who were going on the march to carry as much warm clothing as they could as well as food, pointing out that the weight of food would dwindle as we went along, and that we could no longer rely on Red Cross parcels. So I think we were reasonably well prepared before we started.


I think the sergeant of the guards was named Weber and I believe I had control of him on the first day. Food did arrive for us on that first night, consisting of sausages and bread, but it was a pretty skimpy ration. I can’t seem to remember any rations after that but there could have been. Once we cleared the built up area of the city and were out in the countryside, we started to live off the land. This was made possible by the cooperation of the guard sergeant and the guards who were also benefiting from our foraging. I had offered the sergeant a reference in writing, after working on him for some time that might help him with better treatment at the end of the war. I was wise enough not to give it to him until the march was ended and it was only to the effect that he had treated us fairly while on the march. I also wrote out a whole lot of chits, “The British Government will repay to the people who have supplied food to this column of prisoners” type of thing, I cannot remember the exact wording but they worked like a charm. The recipients of these chits were warned not to display them until after the war and I cannot remember any hassles with them. They were not worth the paper they were written on but they did supply a lot of food to the prisoners.


All food collected in this way was shared and community cooking was done wherever possible. Foraging parties of ten men and one guard were sent out on each side of the road to the farms armed with the chits. Later, even the guards did not bother to go. I think that the fact that the farmers were prepared to help showed they knew the war was lost for them and I hope those chits reinforced that opinion. We also used the farm buildings for night shelter for I am certain that day stages were not set and when we arrived at a place that would give some shelter, and then we stayed. Even when we started the walk, or march, the weather was cold but as the days passed, the weather seemed to improve or maybe we had hardened to the conditions. No one seemed to be interested in us, no one told us to hurry so we made our own pace. We had no screaming officers trying to organise us and I think the guards appreciated this. As they were past their prime, our pace suited them.


The only men we lost on the march were those who escaped and there was plenty of scope for this. Ray Teitjen was one of these. It was my opinion at this stage of the march that it was more dangerous to escape than to remain with the column where we had safety in numbers. To support this opinion, I cited the small bands of escaped Russian prisoners who were roaming around in the country, raping and looting and generally stirring the people up. There were also fanatical bands of the Hitler Youth who were probably after the Russians for revenge, but who would not hesitate to shoot British as well. As it turned out, the advice was sound, because some British prisoners of war did disappear around this time, never to be heard of again. To me, it seemed this should not happen after years as a prisoner. I would never have tried to prevent a man for making up his mind and escaping, but I would have pointed out the disadvantages at this stage of the war. For sure, there was uncertainty staying with the column but believed even more so by escaping. We were six weeks, or was it two months on the march, I am not sure, yet it has not left a great impression on my mind. I cannot remember how many men did escape but I do not believe there were many. The guards did not seem to be aware that men had left the column, the odd occasion when they attempted a count would never have produced an accurate count and the apathetic way they carried it out was a sign of the times.


I had reason to doubt my opinions when we arrived at our destination, Markt Pongau. It was a large camp split up into two compounds. I had two reasons for doubting that I had given good advice, because I now remembered that Markt Pongau was in Hitler’s so called redoubt area where he was going to use prisoners when negotiating a peace. The second and greatest reason was that when we were put into a compound meant to accommodate three hundred and we were one thousand, we saw dead men lying out in the open in the compounds on either side and no one seemed to be caring. An English officer arrived and told me that typhus was rife in the camp and the dead were everywhere, but the British compounds had not been affected too badly as yet. There were only two other British compounds and they were not as crowded as ours.


I knew that you get typhus from lice and that if there were lice in the compound they had to be cleaned out quickly. I sometimes think I made the speech of my life that day, and think that in no small way, it did achieve the impossible. I pointed out that we were weeks, perhaps days away from freedom and we had a choice of dying like that, and I pointed to the dead bodies, or we could clean this place up until not even one louse could survive. If we did this, and I ensured that we did not receive contaminated food by cooking our own, then there was no reason why we should not all see England.


Those blokes cleaned that place up with water and elbow grease, for there was no soap. I did manage to get two coppers and we boiled water and sterilised what we could. The only difficulty we had on this exercise was that three English sergeant majors re discovered their ranks, and refused to help with the work, one of them being my interpreter. When I threatened to put them on charge when the war ended, they did muck in but with poor grace. However, they never used rank again. I saw the blokes in charge of the compounds on either side of us and managed, after a lot of heated talk, to get them cleaning their own compounds. On one side we had Russians who were in poor condition and yet they said they were receiving more food in this camp than they had received in any other. On the other side we had Americans, and I have never forgotten the lack of morale in that American compound. I was allowed a lot of freedom within the camp and found that every nationality opposed to Hitler, even the Italians, were there. I did not count, but there could have been as many as forty compounds there.


There was only one guard on each gate giving access to the road that went through the middle of the camp, with the compounds on either side. It also led to the administration block where the showers and delousers were situated, but these were no longer used and this may have been the reason for the typhus outbreak. Strange to relate, I can’t recall seeing a German officer while in the camp and the administration block looked deserted. Gone were the days of “Raus Raus” and there were neither parades nor counting as if the guards were afraid to enter the compounds.


Perhaps the British did believe that this could be a redoubt area and that the threat was real. I had seen the shambles of Graz and with access to the BBC news, knew that Hitler would find it impossible to reach Markt Pongau, but this was not to say that he could not negotiate from hundreds of miles away.


It must have been a week after we arrived at the camp that the English officer again paid us a visit and after complimenting us on the cleanliness of the compound, told me there was a meeting of compound leaders at the administration block. It turned out to be a meeting that you would never expect in a prisoner of war camp, and yet because this one occurred, I have no knowledge that similar meetings could have been held in other camps throughout Germany. There were no Germans present and yet they must have known of the meeting. Only compound leaders were present, and a few interpreters to get the message across to the different nationalities. A man who was referred to as the Colonel addressed us, but I cannot recall a name. He said he had come into the camp to organise resistance in case the camp was used as a hostage, or to protect itself against SS units who might try to exact vengeance for the loss of the war. The compounds would be armed but not openly, and each day the food carts would take concealed arms into the compounds.


There is no need to go through the day-by-day description of what happened over the next two weeks. It is enough to say that we did get some arms, mostly light machine guns that I had never seen before. Food came from the central depot with each compound trying to get more than the others. Ours having a big ration because of the numbers in the compound. It was not a lot, but I think the men accepted this because they knew they were only a few days away from freedom and I believe the men were disciplined within themselves, unlike when they first became prisoners. The fear of typhus was ever present, for some compounds had not cleaned up and men were still dying daily. The British officer wanted to take some hundreds of men from my compound but when I put it to them, not one man wanted to go, so no effort was made to force them. Maybe they were right, for we had not one case of typhus in our compound and all got back to England.


Only in the British compounds was the typhus epidemic kept in check and I believe this was brought about by better discipline, self-discipline. No one ran around screaming orders to achieve this, for the men had elected their own leaders and then, having elected them, supported them. If a commonsense proposition was put to the British prisoners it was normally adopted, provide the men they trusted put the proposition. This could not be said of the other nationalities in the camp, with perhaps the French being the exception. The Slavs and Serbians seemed to have a fatalistic outlook that certainly did not help them with a typhus crisis. The Italians seemed to rely on religious charms but it did not seem to help them. To me, the biggest surprise was the Americans, who once their tail was down, could not seem to get it up again. Many men died in their compounds that I felt could have been kept alive with better organisation and more discipline, something I had always thought the Americans were noted for.


The Colonel gave us reports of how close the attacking Allies were to us at our daily compound leaders meetings and then one day said we would be liberated by the Americans, which was good news to us as no one wanted to be released by the Russians. Too many stories were coming back of ill treatment of escaped prisoners by the Russians, and that they were giving their own released POWs a hard time.


A lot of what went on during that period is very hazy in my memories, but I have one memory I treasure, something that happened to reward me for any extra effort I may have made. One of the blokes came to me and offered me four small squares of chocolate and I was amazed that he still had some. He went on to say that he had been careful with his and a lot of the men still had some, and since I had managed to get so much food for them, would I please accept some chocolate. That to me was better than any decoration that could be offered.


When liberation day came, no one had to tell me that it was going to happen within hours, for the guards left. The Russians in the compound beside us left, but I asked my blokes to stay in the compound, and they did. Within two hours, a jeep arrived with Americans in it and we were officially freed, but were asked to stay in our compounds.


From an elevated point in our compound I could look down a valley and I could see some farm buildings being set alight by what appeared to be Russian soldiers. When I asked an American soldier what it was all about, he said they were the Russian prisoners from the camp and they had gone crazy. I had seen how the Russian prisoners had been treated and although it was wrong, I could not blame them. Their people at one time had been innocents too.


People have often asked me how I felt about liberation and I find it a hard question to answer. I felt a sense of relief rather than jubilation, Other men were running around slapping each other on the back, but I did not feel like doing this for I also had a feeling of sadness. I was remembering Crete, and most of all Maunthausen, and if I could have found somewhere private, I would have cried.



(Details supplied by his daughter, Toni Lexmond.)

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