Work Camp   1760 L

Location: Wernersdorf

Type of work: Farmwork

Man of Confidence: Sgmn E.A. Churchman, 4924

Number of Men: 10

Known to be present

Thomas Keith Andreason Pte H.Q. 6 Div. 4866 Australia
Les Bagley Sgt      
Melvin Baker Ord Smn RN 4867 South Africa
Richard Henry Bracken Pte   4664 New Zealand
Robert W. Bryce Pte H.Q. 6 Div. AASC 4868 Australia
Eric Albert Churchman Sgmn R Sigs 4954  
James Alexander McRae Spr   4937 New Zealand
William L. (Lofty) Shepherd Dvr RASC 5316  
Fred N. Webster Ld Smn RN 4865 South Africa
Albert Widdop Spr RE 5320  

Photo provided by Melvin Baker

Rear: Bracken, Baker, Andreason, Widdop, Churchman, Webster
Front: Bagley, Shepherd, McRae, Bryce


Extract from 'Life as a POW' by Melvin Baker

For the full account of Melvin's wartime and post-war experiences, beginning with the sinking of HMS Gloucester, go to:

The Heritage Portal

After an uneventful all-day train ride from Marburg (no provisions for journey) we arrived at Wies, the end of the railway line from Graz. A 5-kilometre walk took us to Wernersdorf after dusk – somewhat tired and hungry. We stopped at the first house in the village for the guard to enquire where we were to be billeted, etc. While he was talking to the “bauer“/farmer whose house it was, the wife came to the door and said, “Ein man essen.” This I understood, and before anyone could move, I was in the door, taken to the kitchen and given a bowl of soup and bread. The others saw me eating through the window and never forgave me for beating them to it. The guard persuaded the farmer to give him a loaf of bread for the other nine men in our party. These loaves were a good size, so everyone had a reasonable share.

We were then taken halfway up the hill to a cottage, which was to be our base for some months. Our work party comprised ten men, eight of whom were army and two naval, myself and Fred Webster, both from Port Elizabeth. The other guys were four English, two Aussies and two Kiwis. The room we shared had beds with straw mattresses and, best of all, a wood stove. We were given a blanket only about 4 foot x 4 foot. We then just collapsed until 6 a.m., when the hated word “raus” was shouted to us by the guard. So out of bed, dressed, taken back to the house where we were the previous evening. Ten farmers were waiting to get a worker for each of their farms. I was taken by the one who fed us the previous evening (Windischbauer) and the others were scattered all over. Two of them, an Aussie (Bob) and a Kiwi (Dick) went right up the mountain, an hour’s walk away. It was too far for them to be fetched and returned each day, so they slept on the farm from Monday night to Friday night and came down to us on Saturday evening and left on Monday morning.From now on food was not our only conversation as when we were starving – that was about all we could think about and talk about; and all the wonderful meals we could have when it was all over.

The first job in the morning was to clean out the stable, cart all the manure to the dump for distribution to the lands at a later date, feed the cows and horses (I was the only one where the farmer had horses). All the others used oxen for ploughing, and even cows for lighter work, such as harrowing. After this into the kitchen for breakfast which was “sterz”, coarsely ground yellow maize “porridge”, no sugar or milk – sometimes with ersatz coffee or sour milk (which I hated) and sometimes the stertz was topped with minced, pan-cooked pork fat. At ten o’clock we had a break and were fed bread, and if lucky, a bit of pork fat. One o’clock was the midday meal. This was usually soup, not the way we would make it, watery with bits of bread floating on top, maybe baked beans, sauerkraut or potatoes, very seldom meat. Everyone sat around the table. The food was in one dish, and all mucked out of this dish (very hygienic), soup included. We never drank water. Cider was available all the time, especially when mowing and hay-making.

In the evening we had a slice of bread, not very interesting or inspiring food, but enough to keep one’s stomach full and once again build up strength and fitness, with the long hours and hard work. Working hours in summer (8 months) were 6 am to 8 pm, six days a week; winter 7 am to 7 pm. They tried to get us to work on Sundays to feed the stock etc, but we threw the Geneva Convention at them and said no prisoner shall be forced to work on Sundays.

The farmer I worked for had four sons, no daughters. The eldest, Roman, was a private in the army at the Russian front. Franz, the second son was an SS corporal – where he was stationed I never found out, as he was the one who got leave to come home several times. Hans, the third son, was at home – bad eyesight – wore thick glasses. Paul, the fourth son, was an SS private on the Russian front. All except the third son, Hans, were married.

The second son, Franz, was caught by the Partisans in Yugoslavia and no-one heard details of what happened to him. The Partisans no doubt just shot him because he was SS. The fourth son, Pauli, got home after the war, but the Russians took him away and no-one could find out what happened, but I am sure that as he was SS he was lined up with others and shot. Roman, the first son, made it home and added a daughter to his family of four sons. Hans, the third son, was finally put into uniform but spent more time at home than in the army as he was “needed at home to help with the farm”. Hans and I got on well together. The blacksmith’s lackey was called up at the age of 17 and was captured by the Russians and put in a POW camp. He was not released by the Russians until 13 years after the war ended.

Apart from the farmers having a POW working for them, there were many Russian, Polish and mostly Ukrainian male and female workers aged 17 to 19 years. Windischbauer, my boss, had a 17-year-old Ukrainian girl, very good figure and pretty, but hygiene was not her strong point, as she smelt worse than the pigsty. Pity, as otherwise she was okay. The women did a lot of men’s work and worked for longer hours than we did.

One local woman, Mitzl, aged 40 plus, not only worked in the fields and so on, but joined me in the forests sawing down trees when Hans was called up. She would pull on one side of a cross-saw, and I on the other. The heavy axe work was left to me, but she, with a smaller axe, would trim off the smaller branches. Then the trunks were cut up into 3 metre lengths and dragged to the tracks, where they could be loaded on a wagon. In winter, the one end was put on a sled, and dragged along the snow and icy road to the farm by a pair of horses. Most of the trees I felled were chestnuts. The logs were cut up in one-metre lengths and carted to Wies, the railway station, and sent to a tanning factory.

I moved round the district where we could find chestnuts, so I met up with a lot more people than the other POWs, who never left their farms during working time.

Towards the end of the war, when the bombers came over in hundreds (one Sunday morning we counted over 900) I was about 5 miles from Wernersdorf to collect the logs we had prepared for transport. I went up to the farm house to scrounge some cider, when one bomber was in trouble with smoke coming from it. The two daughters said they hadn’t seen bombs drop and would like to know how it felt. Then the bomber returning for Italy dropped its bombs, which landed about 200 yards from us. The shock and look on those girls’ faces was a sight to see! I said, “Well, you wanted to see it.” The Austrian who was working with me was with the horses when the bombs dropped. The blast knocked him over, and the horses took off, fortunately not too far. We soon had them under control. Actually, at one time I spent more time tree-felling than on farm work

Our first winter came early – the first snow was on the 1st of October. It didn’t last long, but made everything sludge, which was worse than snow. My boots by now were useless and I was issued with a pair of Dutch wooden clogs which kept one’s feet nice and warm but walking in the snow was quite an experience – the snow compacted and stuck to the bottom and built up until I was walking on stilts and had to stop and break it off. Going up the hill to our lager was quite a job as the slope was steep and the clogs kept slipping – in places it was two up and one down. Eventually my bauer found an old pair of his boots, two sizes too big for me with holes in the uppers but certainly better for walking than clogs. For socks I had a couple of rags which I wrapped around my feet. The leaking boots didn’t stop one’s feet from getting wet. The wet rags froze in the boots and when the boots were taken off the rags stayed frozen to the boots – took ages to thaw. My circulation was good and I didn’t suffer from chilblains or other problems like some of the lads. Finally the bauer’s wife took pity on me and gave me a pair of nice thick home-made socks of home-spun wool – what a joy.

The first Red Cross food parcels arrived in October 1941. We could not believe what a lot we found in one small box. That evening when we returned to camp we were each issued with a parcel. Well, you can just imagine what pigs everyone made of themselves. The result was many nightmares. Fred Webster gave a vivid account of the sinking of the Gloucester. He started laughing and said, “Poor old Lofty, he hasn’t got his lifebelt and he can’t swim.” Les Bagley went through the evacuation of Dunkirk. He was sunk three times on the way to England, and finally finished up on a coal barge. He said, “It’s a coal barge, but it floats.” What a way to get home and then go to Greece and then get caught and spend four years as a POW. There were many more disturbing war nightmares. I didn’t get much sleep that night, and eventually dozed off.

From now on we were better fed than anyone else in Germany. Plenty of bulk from farms, all the vitamins and good food from our parcels. This lasted until the end of 1944.

When the food parcels started arriving we received playing cards and some books. Shortly after receiving our first food parcels we received brand-new British Army uniforms - greatcoat, boots and socks, the full kit. What a treat to be properly dressed for once. We wore them in winter, but in summer it was a case of shorts, a shirt and “socals” (wooden soles with a leather top over the front half – slippery when it was wet). If we were sawing down trees I had to wear my boots.

Farming was all done by hand – no machines such as tractors. Wheat, rye and oats were all sown by hand. Maize was sown by a small planter pulled by hand – two men pulling, one behind feeding the planter. Potatoes – each one placed in a furrow by hand. Beans – sown by hand in “klompe” (clumps) in the maize land. Squash – a la beans. A small garden for lettuce, cabbages, etc was tended by the “Bauerin”. The maize land was weeded with hoes, and soil was heaped up to the stems of the plants. The same was done with potatoes. Haymaking took place in midsummer – first mowing, which was done by the men using scythes, turning and raking was done by the women. A second mowing of shorter grass took place in late summer. Hay mowed in the morning was ready for carting to the hayloft by late afternoon provided it stayed sunny and there was no rain.

Wheat etc was cut by sickle by women and tied into bundles which the men took and made stooks for drying. When well dried it was carted to the barn and all these were threshed by hand by beating on a large flat stone at knee height. The bits of the ear which broke off and still had seeds were spread on the floor and thrashed with a wooden club tied loosely to the end of a stick. It was now winnowed by a hand-turned machine after sifting. Potatoes were reaped by spade and hand, then stored in the cellar for winter. Beans – hand reaped. Pumpkins – used for pig feed were loaded on wagons and brought to the farmhouse. The seeds were all retained and turned into salad oil – a very nice addition it made to the salad. Maize – yellow - was reaped by hand and brought to the kitchen of the main bauer and being the last crop of the summer, led to a party. The kitchen was half-filled with maize up to the ceiling. The shelling was done by the farmers and their workers, who went from farm to farm. It was a community project, and when it was finished the party started – singing and dancing and, no doubt, drinking. We were not allowed to join in.

Everything was very labour intensive. Small kids also had chores to do. During haymaking one kid spent most of the day bringing cider from the cellar to the workers – it was very thirsty work. There were no toilet facilities, so to relieve themselves the men merely took two paces back and turned around. The women were not so lucky, as they had to find a bush or a ditch.

Nobody drank water – just cider all the time from morning to evening – after that I don’t know if they drank any of their home-made wine (all had small vineyards). It was ghastly, except for one small barrel which was made from the only decent grapes, which could also be eaten. The others were certainly not for the table. Apple cider and perry (from pears, which had a higher alcohol content) were used for distillation.

Once a year the farmers were allowed to distil their own schnapps. They were allowed 96 hours – the fire was kept going 24 hours a day. The first distillation was low in alcohol, so towards the end it was all put back in the still and double-distilled. The first lot that came from this was not far short of 100% alcohol. I was given a small tot and had to drink it in one go. I nearly choked and felt as though the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end, but there was no way I was going to let the locals know that I couldn’t take it better than them.

Our guard whom we hated and for some reason did not like Andy or me – he came back from a visit to one farm totally blotto – he had sampled far too much schnapps. We thought now we had a chance to get rid of him and told the bauer in whose house we were that he had better lock us up for the night as the guard had passed out – hoping that he would report it. No such luck. He didn’t do a thing about it. So we were stuck with the sod.

Franz (second son) came back from Yugoslavia with two horses, probably commandeered, so I was now a horse knecht (worker), as old Hans still had the other horses. These horses knew exactly when it was 12 o’clock as they stopped and had to be forced to carry on. I was ploughing with them when 12 o’clock came and I got to the end of the field, turned the horses around, and as I moved the plough over, they took off at a gallop and made a nice furrow across the field. Les on whose farm we were working saw the horses and managed to stop them. They were not the easiest pair to handle.

Our horses were far better and easier to handle and knew what to do, especially when it came to pulling logs out of the forests. One day, to speed things up two great big horses (size of Clydesdales) joined us, but their handler would not let one horse at a time pull out a rather large log. So I said don’t worry – I put the mare on alone and showed him how much better one horse was than his two. He was not pleased to be shown up by an “Englander”. This was after Hans, the horse handler, was put into uniform and the two new horses had been returned. I was now horse handler. What Hans did in the army I don’t know, as he was over 60 and not very bright. He could not read or write.

Apart from farm work, being a lumber jack took up all the spare time – so no rest when the farm did not require much work. When I first started on the tree-felling Hans (son of Windischbauer) worked with me and sometimes Mitzl came along to do the lighter work. Then we also had another old man of 75 who was still fit enough to do the lighter work.

When Hans was called up it was just Mitzl and me. She now shared the hard work on the other end of the cross-cut saw. I had to chop the scarf (where you first cut into the tree – it must be in the right place so the tree falls where you want it).

When Hans (horse handler) left we had only one pair of horses. I usually had to load the wagon on my own. Wet chestnut logs are not the lightest. It was a case of getting one end up, securing it and lifting the other end. When loaded they had to be secured by chains fore and aft. I once made a stupid mistake and didn’t re-tighten the chains after going a short distance to let the logs settle, so had to get the logs off and reload. Idiot - never made that one again.

The biggest tree we had to fell was nearly six feet across and the saw was only eight feet long. Four of us tackled this one. It took ages as it had hollowed in the middle and a bit of the centre of the trunk was still there. As we sawed through, it would drop and jam the saw. So we worked the saw loose and started again until it was small enough to finish the job. They tied a rope to the handle so that two of them could pull on one side, but the Englander had to show them up. I didn’t have any rope on my side of the saw. Of course, they didn’t realise what I was doing – when they had to pull, I put extra pressure on the cutting edge of the saw so they had a harder pull than I had. It still took a long time.

We spent our first winter in the house up the hill. We arrived together with our body lice and started the battle to get rid of them. The only way was to remove clothing daily and crush them between our thumb nails. Lex had a good idea. He was going to freeze them to death, so he hung his shirt outside in sub-zero temperatures for two days, but when it thawed they were still there.

After the first winter we moved to the house where Les worked. Better accommodation, except that the place was infested with fleas. By now, having won the battle with lice, the next one started. No anti-flea powder was available. I was allowed to go to the shop as it was next to my work place and found some Lysol which we used to scrub the floor, but no help. I saw some naphthalene on the shelf and got a big packet. We spread this on our beds and it did seem to help a bit, but we now smelt of the stuff.

Every evening the first one in lit the stove. I was usually the first. Within minutes my legs were full of fleas; I went to the window and started on one leg killing dozens, next leg some, by now first leg plenty and so on until reasonably clear for the moment.  Eventually the battle was won.

On getting back to camp we all made tea or coffee and consumed some of our food from Red Cross parcels. Much talk and ragging until 10 pm – lights out and locked up for the night. “Talk” was usually argumentative about which country and life in general was better than others, but we all got on very well together seeing we came from such diverse backgrounds.


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