Extracts of Warsaw Boy
(From the Prologue)
Altengrabow, Germany, October 1944
Bombs had wrecked some of its buildings but the small town's railway tracks ran through the tidied rubble, and the station itself was still functioning. Dead leaves littered the siding we were on. The sky was grey and the air smelled of rain.
‘Los!’ shouted the guard.
It meant ‘move’ and was a word we would hear a lot.
A man in a French forage cap and ‘KG’ - for Kriegsgefangener (prisoner of war)- stencilled in huge white letters on the back of his greatcoat helped me off the train and into an ambulance. It was already full of bedraggled men. Some of them, like myself, had wounds swathed in dirty paper bandages.
An elderly-looking German holding a French Lebel rifle ‒ booty from 1940, when the Nazis seemed invincible ‒ was the last to get in, slamming the door behind him.
The ambulance lurched forward and gathered speed. Through two square windows in the rear door I glimpsed a few trees, the reassuring domesticity of a woman pushing a pram, a male cyclist.
‘You’re all lucky,’ announced our new guard. ‘You’re going to an international prisoner-of-war camp. Not a concentration camp. You’re lucky you’re not Jews either.’
A couple of my bandaged companions nodded. The guard’s words relaxed us. Unless he was lying through his teeth the nagging uncertainty was over. During our passage in padlocked cattle trucks, across Poland’s wet flatlands and into Germany, there had been time enough to ponder our fate. Would the Nazis honour the promise they had made in Warsaw to treat us as captured soldiers? It hadn’t happened at the beginning of the Uprising when the SS had massacred thousands, most of them innocent civilians.
But this guard wasn’t SS, just an ordinary Wehrmacht soldier, a bit too old for the uniform he was wearing, which ‒ like his captured rifle ‒ had known better days. And he seemed to want to reassure us that, as long as we behaved, we had nothing to worry about. Somebody offered him a cigarette, the Polish variety, with its dark tobacco that was all you could get during the occupation. The German nodded and stuck it into the cuff of his field-grey overcoat.
The ambulance stopped and the guard unlocked the double doors before stepping outside. A group of men in a variety of uniforms appeared and began to help us get out. The first thing I saw was a thick barrier of concertinaed barbed wire, a tower with a searchlight and a row of wooden huts. To my right there was something that looked strangely like a small sports field. I looked again and, yes, that net in the middle could only be for volleyball.
I could walk, but only with a stiff-legged shuffle like an old man’s. The left shoe I was wearing on my right leg, just below the bandages, was pinching and painful. Two left shoes were all our nurses had been able to find for me.
Shortly before we surrendered, I had got rid of my jackboots and the Waffen-SS leopard-spotted camouflage smock I had eventually acquired. An enormous stock of these had been looted from a Warsaw warehouse and then salvaged when the original recipients had no further use for them. We had worn them with our red and white Polish arm bands - just as some of us had painted the same colours around our German helmets - but nobody wanted to risk being captured in them.
‘Slowly, slowly and you’ll be all right,’ said a tall man in halting but serviceable German as he helped me towards one of the huts. My helper was wearing a British battledress with a black cat shoulder badge. (I recognized it from German newsreels and later discovered the cat was the insignia of the 56th (London) Infantry Division.)
Only a couple of my fellow Poles were in uniform; they were older men who had joined the Uprising wearing their carefully preserved uniforms from 1939. The rest of us had replaced our pilfered camouflage with a bewildering assortment of mismatched civilian clothing collected from the ruins of Warsaw’s apartment blocks.
The men in their different uniforms were watching the British medics, for that is what they were, as they helped us in. Among the watchers was a group shod in wooden sabots and speaking French. As I limped past, one of them pointed at me and said to his companions, ‘Celui-là, en smoking!’
And no doubt I was worth a second glance, for above my two left shoes was surely the most incongruous outfit of all: a new and well-fitting satin-lapelled black dinner suit, known in France as le smoking. Thus clad, I entered Hitler’s Stalag XI-A. All that was missing was a clean shirt, a bow tie and a matching pair of shoes.
This is the story of how I got there.