Watching the Germans
I arrived at Springhill, officially 185 POW Camp, in the autumn of 1944 as an 18-year-old Private in the Pioneer Corps. In the run-up to D-Day I had been stationed in Plymouth as part of a smokescreen company providing cover for the ships and docks but after the invasion the company was wound up and I found myself with around 30 colleagues heading north by train to Moreton-in-Marsh where trucks were waiting to take us on the short drive to Springhill.
At that time German prisoners captured in France were starting to arrive in the UK in large numbers and Springhill was one of many camps hastily constructed to accommodate them. Roughly octagonal in shape, it was surrounded by parallel wire fences and guarded by four wooden watchtowers. Inside, seemingly scattered at random, were a mix of huts of various shapes, sizes and methods of construction: wood; concrete and brick; and corrugated Nissen huts. The majority of these were accommodation for the prisoners who slept 70-80 per hut in bunk beds, sometimes triple bunks, but other huts were used in the administration of the camp or made a basic provision for the prisoners’ needs – cookhouse, dining hall, chapel, sick quarters, wash houses and latrines – and there was a recreation ground where they played football.
The garrison numbered about 100 strong and, apart from the Pioneers, included a mix of men from other regiments who were not rated fit enough for active service. I estimate that, eventually, there were 2,000-3,000 POWs in the camp. They were low-risk prisoners, not expected to cause trouble, made up of private soldiers and junior NCOs from the Wehrmacht. And not just Germans. There were Poles and Russians who’d fought alongside them, I remember. This was my first sight of the enemy up-close, the first time they had a face. That felt a bit strange at first but I soon got used to it.
When new prisoners arrived at the camp they were interviewed by the headquarters staff who had their offices by the main gate. I would describe the headquarters company as a cross between the Intelligence Corps and the Military Police; though I’m not sure they were either. Trained in interrogation and including German speakers they really controlled the camp and the rest of the garrison were there to support them.
Although new prisoners were supposed to have been sorted, sometimes in these initial interviews higher risk prisoners – like SS and U-Boat crew – were found to have slipped through and we had to escort them to another camp at Comrie in Scotland. We travelled by train, there would be four guards, usually led by a sergeant and a corporal, to two or three prisoners. Those were the days of corridor trains and we would secure a compartment and keep a watch over them. We would arrive at the camp at Comrie in the evening so we would have to spend the night there. The camp was guarded by Free Polish soldiers, a tough bunch who hated the Germans, and we were warned bluntly to stay inside our hut until morning or we risked being shot on sight.
We weren’t often in such close contact with prisoners and, in fact, guards seldom went into the camp except in support of the headquarters staff. Viewed from the perimeter, most prisoners remained distant, grey, anonymous figures, either massed at roll-call or in smaller groups moving around the camp. For that reason I can’t tell you much about how they spent their days. Roll-call, which happened three times a day before meals, was the only real structure to the day for those prisoners who didn’t work, and many didn’t. For those who did, there were some jobs based inside the camp, cooks and medical orderlies for example, but the biggest working contingent were those who went outside the camp to neighbouring farms where they weeded cabbages or picked potatoes. I would often escort them, perhaps three trucks would go out in the morning, sixty prisoners in total, with a driver and guard on each. Only trusted prisoners were allowed outside the camp to work. We would drop them off in batches and only the last group would have a guard; the others were under the farmer’s supervision. I am not sure how many prisoners were given the opportunity to work but I think those who did were better off really, life in the camp must have been very claustrophobic and monotonous for the rest.
I did get to know some of those farm workers. Many were friendly enough, spoke good English even, and were clearly relieved to be out of the war but others remained surly and uncooperative. You see, the camp was run according to a strict regime, low risk or not, and that could be a cause of friction with some prisoners who didn’t like being told what to do or, indeed, being made to do it. I was threatened by one farm worker – told I would be killed if I ever set foot in Germany – but I didn’t take it too seriously. If there was wariness, distrust, dislike even, at times in the relationship between guards and prisoners it shouldn’t come as a surprise given the war was still going on; but I am sure boredom and frustration also played a part in these tensions.
The guards’ days were more structured but they could be very repetitive. Our regular duties lasted for 24 hours at a time starting around 6pm, made up of perhaps thirty men split into three shifts. The first shift would be out patrolling the perimeter or manning the watch towers while the other two shifts would be in the guard house next to the main gate. One of those shifts would be sleeping, the other had to be more alert, reading perhaps or playing cards, and partially dressed in case the guard was called out. Each shift lasted two hours so you were effectively two hours on and four hours off throughout that 24 hour period.
I spent a lot of my time on duty patrolling on the south and west sides of the camp, close to a wood which bordered the perimeter, and in the watch towers which contained small, battery-powered search lights a bit like a car headlamp. At night these lights traversed the camp but otherwise it could be a lonely vigil waiting for dawn to break. My imagination had me wondering who was coming up the ladder after me because it wouldn’t have taken much for a determined escapee to get out; the fence wire was well spaced out and we would have been quickly overwhelmed in a mass break-out as we were armed, not with a machine gun, but with just a rifle and probably five rounds of ammunition.
Of course, things were that way because escapes were not expected; but there were some, though none successful. I remember once there was a rumour of a tunnel but it came to nothing. We did carry out searches of huts during roll-call looking for knives and improvised tools, anything that could be used as a jemmy, but most, if not all, escapes were opportunistic and made by the prisoners who worked on farms. For those left without a guard it was simple enough to slip away if they wanted. Most didn’t as they got extra food on the farms and knew when they were well off.
If someone did escape, something like a ten mile area would be sealed off, with extra troops drafted in to help search. Escapees were soon re-captured as we knew where they would go. Those that had tried and failed to escape would be shipped off to a higher security camp and their farming days were over.
When not on duty we were based in our own quarters just beyond the perimeter. Life wasn’t much different for the guards as it was for the prisoners. We slept in similar huts, only with single beds instead of bunk beds, froze in winter, washed in cold water and ate pretty much the same food. We did have a NAAFI, though, and the chance to get out on our days off. I think I only visited Chipping Campden for Sunday Church Parade. Mostly we went to Evesham for the cinema or Broadway where there were dances organised by the WVS. Without transport, the camp seemed very isolated so a visit to the pub, like the one on Fish Hill or the Lygon Arms in Broadway, could mean a three mile walk each way unless you happened to meet one of the black American drivers who were based nearby and would usually stop and give you a lift.
When I got bored I did find myself wishing for something more adventurous. In the last months of the war some of the guards were re-assigned to active service and sent to Germany as replacements for the heavy losses the infantry were suffering. There were rumours more of us would go but they came to nothing. At the time I was disappointed not to see action but I realise now I might not have lived to this age if I had.
End of the war
When the end of the war came I viewed it with mixed emotions: I was relieved it was over but its end didn’t mean either we or the prisoners were going home soon. Life in the camp carried on but, of course, the regime did relax. For one thing I think we stopped carrying ammunition. More prisoners went out to work on farms and a trade sprang up between the prisoners and guards for materials for the handicrafts which the prisoners made and gave away or bartered or sold locally. These handicrafts, toys particularly, went out with the farm workers who would offer us cigarettes and chocolate in return for the raw materials they needed. I know later some of the prisoners got on very friendly terms with local families who they often gave these handicrafts to but, during my time, the tension in the relationship between the prisoners and the guards never quite went away, despite the arrival of peace.
My time at Springhill came to an end in March 1946 with early release from the army as I had experience in the building trade and re-building was obviously a major priority after the war. I returned to my home in Yorkshire but within a few years I had moved to London where I live now.
Seventy years have past now so I realise there won’t be too many left who remember these events but I’d love to hear from anybody who has stories or photographs to share.
Were you at Springhill Camp – either as a prisoner or as a guard – or in any other capacity? Do you have memories you would like to share? Please get in touch with us!