Nancy Morris’s daughter, Terri, wrote an essay about the Second World War in her junior year of high school at Saint Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware. Her essay, written in 1978, revolved around the experiences of prisoners-of-war in German POW camps. In the process of writing her essay, Terri got in contact with four individuals who were held captive in these camps and asked them to document their experience. These four individuals were: Chaplain David Haxton Carswell Read, Staff Sergeant Henri Adrien Richardson, Corporal William Theodore Blackiston, and Technical Sergeant Joseph R. Smith.
Nancy Morris’s artifacts include Terri’s essay about POWs, letters of communication between Terri and her interviewees, questionnaire and responses about life in German POW camps, and an audio recording from David H.C. Read and his experience as a prisoner-of-war.
DAVID HAXTON CARSWELL READ
The following contains David H.C. Read’s audio responses to this questionnaire, sent by Terri for her World War Two project.
First question on the questionnaire: I was stationed in France with the British Expeditionary Force of 1939-40. First on the Belgian front and then to the south of the Maginot Line, from where we moved to the line of the Somme defending Paris. The division was under the control of the French army core. We were supposed to be withdrawn from Le Havre, but the Germans got there first, whereupon we withdrew to a little village called Saint-Valery, from which it was almost impossible to get away in the little boats that appeared. When our ammunition ran out, the division surrendered and I personally was picked up on my way to a boat underneath the cliffs.
The German soldier to whom I surrendered was part of General Rommel’s Amored Division. [He] was extremely tolerant, in spite of my desire to engage him in argument about Hitler’s aggressions. In fact, he asked me if I smoked and pointed out there were cans of tobacco floating in on the sea and told me to help myself. Shortly thereafter, I was surrounded by a group of Rommel’s young men on the top of the cliff. When they discovered I could speak German, they began to tease me about our declaring war on them and not knowing how strong they were. They then asked how long the war would last, and when I said “years and years,” they laughed and said “15 days.” When I pointed to the sea and said, “How are you going to get over there?”, they said, “Planes. Thousands of planes. England will be razed.” There was nothing brutal or objectionable about this treatment. They were simply cock-a-hoop, as well they might be, and surprised that I didn’t agree with their prognosis.
The journey from the north of France to the prison camp in Germany was one of the worst experiences of all. To begin with, one’s thoughts and feelings at such a time are extremely bewildered. One is prepared for being killed or wounded, but no one ever suggests being taken prisoner. There was an instinct to be highly critical of the support of our own troops and those of our allies. There was a reaction of anger on the part of many, but even then there was little outright depression about the ultimate outcome of the war. On the way through the north of France, Belgium and Holland to the Rhine, we received a minimum of food. [We were] marched every morning from 6 to 1 PM and were fed mostly by the kindness of French women in the villages we passed through. It was impossible to blame the Germans entirely for the limited amount of food, since they were not prepared for so many hundreds of thousands of prisoners. When we reached the Rhine, we were embarked on boats and barges, tremendously crowded and taken up the Rhine to Emmerich, where we spent a couple of days, and then by train to Laufen in Bavaria. There was a minimum of food and, even at times, water during all this experience. It was discovered that it was more tolerable to march on an empty stomach than sit in crowded trains or boats.
The first prison I was in was the worst. The second worst — the last being the worst. There were 1,500 British officers in an old archbishop’s palace near Salzburg. Conditions were primitive, although the surrounding mountains were beautiful. There was an open yard for exercise, where people moved around in threes and fours, constantly walking. The rooms were crowded. One’s first impression was not of fear, but of depression and constantly the thought, “How long?”
The procedure upon arrival was to have one’s head completely shaved. We had already been searched on the road. We were then photographed and given a prison number. There was no questioning at this point.
The room I was in was just large enough to contain 3 three-tier beds and one small table. Nine chaplains occupied this room, but we were much better off than others, where a hundred or so lieutenants would be crowded into a room full of three-tier beds. Our diet was minimal and there was constant need for visiting the latrines three or four times a night. The effect of men clamboring over each other and crashing in army boots on this ploy was hardly restful.
We had to be out on appell — roll call — [at] I think about 9 o’clock. Before then, a little bread and coffee might appear. There was an immediate desire to use spare time for various recreational and educational purposes. Camp university was set up, and there were experts on almost any subject one could think of. At this period in prison life, there was great enthusiasm for attending lectures of all kinds. In some of them, under disguise, our strategic experts spoke of the future course of the war. The Germans usually sent someone to listen to most lectures, but there was little attempt at censorship, except if they thought political views were being given or instructions for escape. We had freedom also to have religious services, although the sermon was supposed to be submitted to the German authorities beforehand. The Germans were willing to provide musical instruments so that we could have an orchestra, and under parole, civilian clothes could be used for the performing of plays. We had several professional actors and directors in the camp, so that the standard of our productions was fairly high. Spare time was also spent, of course, on secret escape efforts, which involved hundreds of people.
At this time, the meals were appalling. We had an eighth of a loaf of bread and some dirty coffee, and twice a day, [we had] an indescribable soup plus two potatoes, one of which was usually bad. On this diet, we lost weight rapidly and food was on everybody’s mind all the time.
During the first winter, there was great criticism at the fact that Red Cross parcels did not come through. Eventually, however, they came, and we owe everything to them. From about the spring of 1940 to the spring of 1944, in these camps, one Red Cross parcel per man per week was fairly standard, and the Germans were extremely honest in delivering them to us. The choice of food in the Red Cross parcels, both British and American, was excellent and maintained our health over these years. It was extraordinary how after a year or two our appetites diminished, so that when Red Cross parcels began to dwindle towards the end of the war, the older prisoners felt the pangs much less than prisoners who were newly captured. We also were entitled to private parcels from our wives, containing clothing, soap, chocolate, etc. These also were honestly handed over to us, although of course [were] inspected for anything that could be used for escaping purposes.
We were on a ration of mail. I think 2 letters and 2 cards per month going out and quite a number of letters going in. On one occasion, Hitler imposed a reprisal on a camp I was in and we had no letters for about three months and then were given huge piles of them. Normally, however, these letters came quite regularly [and] were not censored too much. [They] were the most important item besides food for our morale. We were extremely aware of what was happening in the war. In fact, I should say we were much better informed than civilians or military personnel anywhere. We knew how to read the German newspapers and interpret the OKW Bulletin. We also had secret radios for most of the war, on which we received BBC bulletins regularly. Besides that, we had ample opportunity to study the course of the war, to receive firsthand reports from new captives who had taken part in expeditions. We also had the advice and expertise of journalists and strategists of various kinds in our camp, as well as picking up informations from friendly Germans or Allied workers, with whom we had occasional contact. A few of us who spoke German had the opportunity of speaking to German civilians as well as military and noncombatants. [We] went out under guard at least once a week, which gave us extra possibilities for contact with civilians.
In the conditions of the first camp, which I must emphasize were much worse than any other that I was in until the end, there was considerable friction among different individuals and groups. But all at first. But always subordinate to a general morale. Over the years, we built up a great tolerance so that the eccentricities of individuals were regarded humorously, whereas formerly they might have led to trouble. A general impression … was that the prison experience had revealed both the heights and depths of which human nature is capable. There were extreme cases of selfishness and extreme cases of unselfishness that we had never experienced before. In general, there was a strong morale based on the confidence on our own country’s invincibility. In general, there was also a spirit of generosity when it came to sharing private possessions, such as chocolate.
We were very much aware of security from the beginning. Every camp had not only its security officer but various others who were supposed to be on the lookout for escape activities. In general, as the war went on, the kind of soldier employed as guards tended to be veterans of the First World War, who were by no means Nazi [sympathizers.] In general, the situation portrayed in caricature by Hogan’s Heroes (a sitcom in the late 1960s about WWII German POWs) was reflected in our experience ie. the genial, good-hearted Feldwebel (German for “sergeant”) and the collaboration between our local German authorities and us over against the Gestapo. Security condition of course varied enormously according to the camp and were much the strongest in the famous Colditz prison, where regular escapers were eventually incarcerated.
Searches took place by surprise, every month or so. Everyone was put into the open space at the center of the camp and our rooms were gone through. These searches were unpleasant at first, but over the years, we handled them very easily, usually by bribery with cigarettes. By that time, most German sentries were by no means enthusiastic about doing this job. On one such occasion, the German officer in charge of the search came to the Senior British Officer afterwards and said, “I do not mind searching your camp and finding no contraband, but I would like my own revolver back!”
It is impossible to categorize the Germans as it would be any other race. I could, however, say that the majority of our guards were disposed to be friendly and some of them very helpful and sympathetic. We had occasional hostile ones, usually Nazi party members, and sometimes those who pretended to be friendly, but were actually working against us. There was no physical ill treatment worth speaking about. On the whole, you could say that the attitude was militarily correct.
As I have said, there was practically no physical brutality. Occasionally in some camps, punishments might be more severe than was wanted by the Geneva Convention — as, for instance, when the laborers in one camp were manacled daily for a period in reprisal for what was said to have happened at Dieppe.
The Germans were regarded on the whole with a respect for the correct soldiers among them and a kind of genial tolerance for the others. Officer prisoners on the whole tended to avoid contact with the Germans, but in the stalags where the other ranks were, there was of course continual interplay with them. I found that the other ranks adopted the slightly mocking but good humored attitude, portrayed in Hogan’s Heroes, toward [the Germans.] There was an invincible belief in the ultimate victory of the Allied cause, which enabled prisoners, especially British and American, to adopt very self-assured, even superior attitudes to their captors.
Some rules were regularly broken without much trouble, but on occasion, there were serious consequences. In my first camp, there was issued an order that no one must lean out of a window. Previous Polish prisoners had a habit of jumping from a high window in order to kill a German as well as themselves. One of our officers who was painting at an open window was shot dead by a guard. The Germans never confessed that this was a crime, but obviously, most of the guards were extremely shaken by the incident, which was the only one that I experienced. As for harmless mischief, there were in every camp a constant series of practical jokes and teasing of the Germans, most of which had few repercussions.
A considerable number of prisoners thought of little else but escape. We all knew how difficult it was, but there were many determined escapers among us. The stories that have been told of their devices could not be exaggerated. It was extraordinary what could be done in the way of disguise and the planning of an elaborate escape. Optimism was general, although everybody knew that escaping was a very, very difficult undertaking. It was much more difficult in officers’ camps, as they did not go out on working parties like the other ranks [did.] The real problem, of course, was to get over the border. I could spend the rest of this tape on escape efforts. [I] will only mention an elaborate hoax, whereby three British officers escaped, disguised as a German general plus two of the protecting power agents ie. Swiss in civilian clothes. The real protecting power general emerged at one end of the camp, while the fake ones emerged at the same moment at the other side and were ushered out by the guards. Another from an old castle involved an elaborate device of slinging a rope across the moat, which then dangled down. On dropping down into the moat, the escapists were able to climb up the outside wall. This, in face of constant searchlights and guard movements, was an extremely intricate operation, and for weeks the Germans did not believe the men could have gone.
Yes, we had hiding places everywhere, particularly for the radio. Although I operated the radio set, since the listener had to understand French and German as well as English, I still did not know where it was hidden. A great many secrets were kept from the Germans and prisoners have immense skills of deception.
I was released from a camp in the near area of Frankfurt in March 1945. The American Third Army rode past our camp on Good Friday and we were free.
Yes, ever since, I have had thoughts of my friends in the camp. In fact, my first action on release was to go with an American officer in search of British officers whom I had left in another camp fifty miles further east.
Of course we wondered if we would ever see each other again. Somebody had remarked, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you all, but I don’t want to see any of you again.” We soon realized that this wasn’t true, especially as the business of adjusting to life at home was often painful. We then welcomed the sight of an ex-prisoner whose language we spoke and whose feelings we shared.
I have always wanted to keep in touch and have done so successfully with a great many prisoners. I know one or two who like to erase all memories, but I think most enjoy the camaraderie of being with ex-prisoners — although (most are) getting bored with trying to interpret the experience to others.
In summary, my feelings about the experience are that I am grateful to have come through it and for all that I learned by it. It is not one that anyone can really forget. Like most others I have spoken to, I have still occasional nightmares when the real, really worst of the experience resurfaces — ie. that we were never, ever going to get out. Nobody voiced that thought, but we all had it. The memory has a curious way of keeping alive all the funny, exciting and delightful incidents that occurred and rubbing out the unpleasant. It would be easy to romanticize, but it would not be a fair picture. I hope these answers will give you something of my response to your questions.
HENRI ADRIEN RICHARDSON
The following pages are a written response by Staff Sergeant Richardson to this questionnaire, written by Terri for her project.
WILLIAM THEODORE BLACKISTON
The following pages are a written response by Corporal Blackiston to this questionnaire, written by Terri for her project.
JOSEPH R. SMITH
The following pages are a written response by Technical Sergeant Joseph R. Smith to this questionnaire, written by Terri for her project.
The following note (from 2013) is from Terri to her mother, Nancy Morris, regarding the delivery of her essay and other related documents.