Work Camp  2044 L

Location: Walkersdorf

Type of work: Farming

Man of Confidence: Unknown

Number of Men: 10 approx.

Known to be present

Ron Briggs Gnr RA 4064  
Tom Hickson Gnr RA 4063  
Jack Kitching Spr RE 5624  
Harry Leyland Gnr RA 4067  
George Lloyd   RAC    
Len Lord Dvr RASC 5343  
Joe Scott Gnr RA 4035  
John Street   RAC    
Eric Thomas Dvr RASC 5342  
Stan Veevers Dvr RASC 5344  
Name and photos supplied by Steve Leyland, grandson of Harry Leyland.

Extract from the diary of Harry Leyland

From Greece, Harry was taken to Stalag XVIIID in Marburg.

The camp was now being filled with considerable numbers of Russian prisoners of war who brought with them typhus, so I was very much relieved when at morning roll call ten of us were told to collect our belongings and that we were going to work on a farm. Again we were loaded onto a train and again we did not know our destination, Although this time we were to travel in comparative luxury, ten of us to the carriage and one German guard. The train stopped at a small station and from the writing and signs we guessed that we were now in Austria.
A farmer was waiting outside the station with a horse and cart and it set of with the guard sitting on the back clutching his rifle and we ten ambling along behind. As we passed the people working in the fields they looked at us in amazement as no doubt we were not a pretty sight having been half starved for two months and wearing the clothes we had been captured in. We arrived at Walkersdorf after about eight miles of painfully putting one foot in front of the other. We were taken to a farmhouse in the middle of the village and out into a room about fifteen feet square. There were ten bunks in the room with straw mattresses and these were very quickly occupied, the guard locked the door but we were too tired to worry about that. Some time later the door was unlocked and the farmers wife brought us some food, it was only bread and cheese but after the rubbish we had been eating it tasted wonderful.
After a nights sleep the guard woke us up by rattling the chain with which he had secured the door. We had by this time gotten to know each other and we seemed to be a cross section of the British army: John Street from the 4th Hussars, George Lloyd the Tank Corps, Jack Kitching the Royal Engineers, Stan Veevers, Eric Thomas and Len Lord from the R.A.S.C and Joe Scott, Ron Briggs, Tom Hickson and myself from the Royal Artillery. Outside the farmhouse had gathered a number of men, and then began what seemed like a cattle auction. The farmers walked amongst us probably trying to assess our capabilities as farm hands, I half expected them to examine our teeth. Since we had no knowledge of the German language, all communication was by signs and the farmers indicated their choice by touching us somewhat apprehensively on the shoulder. The farmer who had brought us from the railway station took Stan Veevers, Eric Thomas and myself with him and we walked about two miles to a small hamlet in the hills. This was Breitenbach, a cluster of six small farms. He retained Stan and Eric and took me to his neighbour. As I got near the barn I could hear a rhythmic thumping and when I entered the barn I saw about ten people banging away at piles of corn on the floor. They were, of course. using the ancient method of threshing by flails. A flail is long pole with a shorter one that is lead weighted and attached by a leather strap to the end. Someone pushed a flail in my hand and indicated that I should participate. Now the correct method, as I later found out, is for each person to hit the floor in turn thus creating reverberation from under the corn. However, I was not aware of this procedure so every few minutes the old man, who seemed to be in charge of the proceedings, called a halt to instruct me by sign language that I was doing it all wrong. The two months that we had been on starvation rations had reduced my capability for sustained physical effort so every time I felt the need for a rest I resorted to deliberately striking out of turn. I suspected that the old farmer came to the conclusion that he had been saddled with an idiot.
At midday we all trooped into the kitchen, a large bowl was placed in the centre of the table and after the old man had recited what appeared to be an Austrian version of the Lordís prayer, everybody, using their own spoon, proceeded to eat from the same bowl of sauerkraut and meat. I didnít like this at all but hunger does not recognise fastidiousness so I joined in with the others. A large glass of cider was also passed round and we all took turns in drinking from it. However, I decided that this method of eating and drinking would be changed if I continued to work on this farm. The owner of the farm was called Alois Lafer and I think he was about eighty years of age, I found out later that he had never been married. His nephew was Michael Lafer who also worked on the farm and he was not married either, there was also a housekeeper in her late sixties, also unmarried so it was very much a single persons establishment. The other workers were all women and had been recruited from neighbouring farms as casual labour.
In the evening the guard arrived and after collecting Stan and Eric from the next farm, escorted us back to Walkersdorf and the room in the farm. He sat outside the door with his rifle on his knees whilst we got ourselves sorted out, we then heard him put the chain and padlock on the door and go into his adjoining room. This was my first day on the farm and there were many more like it. For the next few days I tolerated this eating and drinking out of the same bowl until I could stand it no longer, so one day I took my own mess tin to the farm and as soon as the old man said his prayer I proceeded to spoon what was in the bowl into my own tin. I got the impression that they thought the English were peculiar.
Every morning the guard would unchain the door and take those who were working in Walkersdorf to the various farms and then return to take the three of us to Breitenbach, repeating the procedure in the evening. In October we had been prisoners of war for five months and since we were still wearing the clothes we had been captured in they were showing distinct signs of wear and so when some new uniforms arrived from the main camp, which was Stalag 18A we felt better and began to look more like soldiers. Unfortunately there were no boots so the Germans issued us with clogs, very warm but totally unsuitable for walking the two miles to Breitenbach. However, it wasnít long before we did acquire some new boots courtesy of the Red Cross. Letters had now started to arrive from home and when we also began to receive Red Cross parcels, conditions became more bearable. A typical Red Cross parcel consisted of a tin of butter, a tin of corned beef, a tin of sardines, a tin of stew, a bar of chocolate, some tea, coffee and dried milk and fifty cigarettes. All these items the Austrians had not seen for years and made a mockery of the German propaganda that was constantly asserting that England was starving. Until now I had been a non-smoker but the availability of cigarettes put a stop to that.
October was wine making time, the farmer had a small vineyard in the hills so we all went up to pick the grapes and press them. The old man fastened a half-round wooden tub on my back and indicated that I should walk between the rows of vines whilst the women, who were cutting off the grapes, then filled the tub and I would take it to the press, empty it and have a glass of last yearsí wine. I soon found out that if I didnít let them fill the tub so full it was easier to carry and I could quench my thirst more often. As the day wore on the slope to the press got steeper and my legs unsteadier until eventually, Michael had to relieve me from carrying the tub and prop me up against the wine-press. The guard, when he came to collect us at night, was not amused as he assisted me to walk back to Walkersdorf. However, a few cigarettes brought a smile to his face.
Every morning with the exception of Sunday the guard would waken us every morning and after we had washed he would take all those who were working in Walkersdorf to the various farms and then escort the three of us to Breitenbach, and since he had to collect us at night that meant that he did the two mile walk four times a day, but of course he was not working in between. The farm that I was working on was not very big as farms go and its animal content consisted of two oxen, three cows, three pigs and some hens, however, as I had the job of cleaning out the shippons daily I thought it was big enough.
In November we had the first snow of the winter, not three or four inches as was usual at home, in one night two feet of snow fell and the walk to Breitenbach became an endurance test and took about two hours, our only consolation being that the guard would have to make the journey three more times. Whilst the snow was on the ground Michael and I would go into the woods and cut down trees and for this we used a huge cross-cut saw, the logs were then taken to the farm on sledges pulled by the oxen. These logs were then cut and split into small pieces for burning on the stove which was the only form of heating and cooking on the farm, so as the old saying goes, if you cut your own firewood you get warm twice as quick.
The old farmers eyes were beginning to fail and he was no longer able to read the newspaper so every morning when it arrived I had to sit down and read it to him, so we had the unusual situation of reading aloud and not understanding one word I was saying. Our first Christmas in captivity was hardly distinguishable from any other day except that we stayed in the room playing cards and had corned beef stew for our Christmas dinner washed down with some wine we had managed to purloin. Stan Veevers, who worked on the next farm, had had some farming experience and he was able to slaughter animals and since there were no men in the village with that ability he was very much in demand for pig killing. On one occasion he came to slaughter a pig, the usual method was to pole axe the pig and as it lay on its side cut its throat and catch the blood which was used to make a black pudding pancake. We did this and after we had drained all the blood out of it and lifted the pig into a wooden trough we proceeded to pour boiling water over it and scrape off the hairs, at which point the supposedly dead pig scrambled out of the trough and ran round the yard before finally collapsing in the midden.
Spring arrived and with it thoughts of escape, but as we were under constant surveillance by either the guard or the farmer it was considered impractical since we would not have got very far. Red Cross parcels were now coming at regular intervals, one every month and this created a situation whereby we were living considerably better than our captors. Every now and again our room was searched by an officer in charge of the district and on these occasions we would return to find all our belongings strewn about the room, cigarettes broken in half, chocolate bars in pieces. It was perhaps awkwardness on the part of the Germans or perhaps they were searching for maps etc, but strangely enough we had a large map on the back of the door but since they had thrown open the door in their usual aggressive manner they failed to see it. We were able to buy things using cigarettes and chocolate as a form of currency, Seppl, a young lad of about twelve would make a good job of cleaning our boots for a piece of chocolate. I bought a pair of skis for fifty cigarettes, and when we had a guard who was wounded in Russia and was a sergeant in the Austrian alpine regiment, I persuaded him to teach me how to ski for a few cigarettes. So for several Sundays we would go into the hills and practice, I was probably the first person having skiing lessons from someone with a rifle on his shoulder.
In general the guards treated us with military correctness except for one or two minor irritations, for instance one guard decided that all food from our Red Cross parcels be kept under lock and key in his room and we should ask him when we wanted anything, however when ten of us at five minute intervals spoilt his Sunday afternoon by asking him to open the cupboard he decided to dispense with that regulation. Another guard wanted us to stencil our prisoner of war number on our jacket I informed him that this was in contravention of the Geneva convention regarding the treatment of prisoners, he believed my lie and scrapped the idea. One guard wanted us to put the lights out at 10pm, however as the light switch was in our room he couldnít enforce that silly rule.
By this time I had acquired a knowledge of German and since I seemed to speak it somewhat better than the others, probably through reading the newspaper to the old man, the guard appointed me camp liaison officer. This meant that I had to deal with all the correspondence to Stalag 18A, transmit the complaints and collect the Red Cross parcels from Feldbach every month, and as this meant a journey of fifteen miles, the guard and I would borrow two bicycles and take a country ride and return festooned with parcels like two Christmas trees, stopping for a glass of wine on the way, me paying with cigarettes.
During the summer of 1942 the neighbouring farmer received news that his son had been killed in France. This created a bit of animosity especially since I had altered the swastikaís that he had carved on the seats around the farm into union jackís. He had also inserted a swastika in the tiles of a barn roof. Eric Thomas told him that one day he would have the pleasure of seeing that removed, and he did when the bombers who began flying over every day on their way to Vienna. In 1943, Maria, the housekeeper died and her replacement was an evacuee from Hanover, she and I did not get on very well so she didnít last very long and another woman from the next village took her place. Shortly after, the old farmer died and Michael became the new owner. Tom Hickson, who worked on a farm in Walkersdorf decided that he would have a change so he persuaded the guard to transfer him to another farm in the. next village. I was most surprised when his replacement arrived from Stalag and turned out to be my sisterís husband who had been captured in North Africa and after moving all over Italy had ended up in Stalag 18A. Shortly after the arrival of Henry (Ashdown) we were all taken to a spa town for x-rays, there had been a high incidence of tuberculosis amongst the prisoners of war and the Red Cross insisted that we should all be examined. Unfortunately, Henry was found to have contracted the illness so he was returned to Stalag for repatriation.
It was customary after the first hay making in May to allow the cows into the meadow to graze, but since the fields were not enclosed by hedges the cows needed to be tethered so as not to wander. On one occasion the farmer told me to take the three cows out into the field. It was a hot day so I found some shade under an apple tree and tied the cows to the next tree. I woke to find the farmer shaking me and demanding to know were his cows were. After searching for two hours we found them in the next village three miles away.
In February 1944 I went down with pneumonia and was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital at Furstenfeldt. For the first few days I wasnít sure where I was but as the days went by and I managed to recover I realised how much care and attention had been given me by the nuns who staffed the hospital and the six weeks I stayed there was far in excess of the normal recuperation time. So after six weeks of the very best of medical attention I was returned to Walkersdorf with a note form the chief hospital doctor indicating that I was only fit for light work. I was surprised to find that John Street had been returned after suffering a mental breakdown, although I had noticed for some time that he had been behaving strangely, but not so bad as to warrant his removal in a straight jacket. It transpired that he had been calling everyone spies and threatening all sorts of violence.
At the end of 1944, we were now celebrating out fourth Christmas in captivity, it was becoming apparent that the war entering its final phase, the Russians were approaching Austria from the east and the Allies from the west and south, all this we were able to learn from the guards who were now adopting a more conciliatory attitude. And there was now a constant stream of hundreds of bombers flying over, on their way to bomb Vienna. The vapour trials they left behind formed one gigantic cloud.
One Sunday we had a visit from a South African called Corlander, he was wearing a German army uniform with a Union Jack on the sleeve and an armband inscribed British Free Corps. He spent all afternoon trying to get us to join this unit by telling us what a wonderful life it was and how we would be part of the new order when the war was over. Eventually we got fed up with his efforts to persuade us to join his unit, and when we had smoked all the cigarette that he was freely handing round we told him in no uncertain terms what he could do with his offer of a life of luxury and that if he did not get out we would help him on his way with ten pairs of army boots.
Early in April 1945, the Russian army entered Austria from Hungary and we could see an hear their artillery pounding Riegersburg castle about six miles away, and so we decided that as the Russians were so near we would try to join them, however, the guard told us that he had been ordered to take us away from the front line to Weiz.

Harry joined the thousands of POWs walking across Austria to Markt Pongau and Salzburg. From there he was flown to the UK.

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