Bedfordshire prisoners of war - readers share their memories

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IN October, Memory Lane published a request by Stephen Risby for information on Italian and German prisoners of war in Bedfordshire between 1941 and 1948. Many of you got in touch and Stephen is now hoping to publish a book on the subject next year. With background information kindly supplied by Stephen, Catherine Rose spoke to some of the people who remembered.

The advent of World War Two left Britain without an agricultural workforce. There are no county figures but to gain some idea of the impact on Bedfordshire, about 12,000 men were conscripted from Luton alone. At the same time the German U-boat blockade meant the loss of imported food from Europe. Increased domestic production was needed and part of the solution for the British Government from 1941 onwards was to utilise Prisoner of War (PoW) labour.

As a result, numerous camps were built across Bedfordshire and although it is not known exactly how many there were, one of the first was at Duck’s Cross, Wilden with a number of satellite hostels in Cockhayne Hatley, Farndish, Ravensden, Roxton, Highlands Farm in Moggerhanger and Sharnbrook.

Will Stapleton of Sandy lived in Roxton Parish and remembers the Duck’s Cross camp.

“I resided in Colesden during the Second World War. The camp was roughly a mile from our home. The first PoW to arrive were Italians, later followed by Germans. When they first came out to work on local farms, they had an armed guard escort. As the war continued they were allowed out to work without guards. I recall several of the former prisoners took up residence on local farms. A number of them married local girls. Dances also used to be held up at the PoW camp.

“Some were very good at making children’s toys out of wood such as wheelbarrows, dolls houses, and trains, also slippers out of string. After the war finished, the Duck’s Cross Camp became a home for displaced persons. Known as DPs, several of these also worked locally. Many came from countries that were later behind the Iron Curtain.”

In mid Beds, there were camps at Tempsford, Sandy, Shefford, near Northill, Everton, Gamlingay, Lower Gravenhurst and at Potton Manor with a satellite at Old Woodbury Hall.

Margaret Stacey has lived in Potton all her life and remembers her aunt taking her as a little girl for walks, stopping to talk to the prisoners at the manor gate on Gamlingay Corner. On one occasion, a PoW made her a parrot from wood which swung back and forth on a perch.

“We didn’t have many toys in those days” said Margaret. Thrilled, she kept it until her mother moved along with Christmas cards sent by another prisoner.

Many of the mainly Italian PoW worked on land owned by Fred Tear along Gamlingay Road and towards Cockayne Hatley. Margaret remembers the manor very well (now demolished) with its high fence. One of the huts was still there when it was pulled down.

Maureen Guage was born at Old Woodbury Farm in 1941 and remembers soldiers, who an older relative said were Italian prisoners, living in a field in front of their farmhouse which still stands in the grounds of Woodbury Hall.

The Italians became co operators in 1943 following Italy’s surrender, and were allowed a considerable amount of freedom, including visits to local towns and social events. After the invasion of the European mainland in June 1944, large numbers of German prisoners were taken. Up until this time, it had been official government policy not to keep Germans who held Nazi sympathies in Britain on the grounds of national security. Consequently German prisoners had been posted to Canada and the US.

Eventually however, Britain was forced to start taking German PoW. Initially they sat idle in their camps but it was realised that boredom might cause resentment and trouble, so the government reluctantly agreed to give them employment.

Like the early Italians, the Germans were only permitted to work in gangs under an armed escort and consequently the range of jobs they could be given to do was restricted. After a time however, German PoW came to live in hostels and were billeted upon farmers in much the same manner as the Italians before them.

A trained toolmaker, Arno Reinhardt was captured in Belgium in September 1944 and spent a week sleeping outdoors in a field surrounded by barbed wire at Dieppe with 10,000 other PoW. A month later he landed at Newhaven where he was given a shower, sprayed with DDT and sent to London by train. After being shipped to various places across the UK, including Ireland, he eventually ended up at Camp 269, Potton Manor in August 1945 with 500 other prisoners.

Arno spent the harsh winter of 1946/47 removing hedges on Tempsford Airfield before transfer to the Shuttleworth Estate at Old Warden. One of 20 workers, he was sent to Home Farm and the kitchen garden which he was later told “had never been dug so well in years”.

The spring of 1947 was wet and windy. The WARAG lorry would drop them off at the old pump in Old Warden and from there they would go into the warren to saw up fallen trees using a 6’ 6” diameter chain saw driven by a steam engine. Fallen larch were used to make fencing rails.

Arno was one of two workers kept on to service the estate, including at Cople and Willington. He slept in the harness room of the stable block and would have dinner in the kitchen at Shuttleworth Mansion with the scullery boys.

Answering to Mr Fellowes, in 1948 Arno was looking after the horse of Mr Robinson, the senior partner of Robinson & Hall estate agents who “would sometimes drop me ten bob”. In 1949 he was officially discharged as a PoW in Clapham, where he now lives. He didn’t want to go back to East Germany. “I had a good job here.”

After the war, Arno was able to extend his agricultural work permit at the labour exchange for a job at Weatherley Oilgear in Biggleswade thanks to help from ‘Wee Jacky’ Simpson, the personnel manager, and in 1957 moved to Berkeley Coachworks. He recalls another German PoW Johannes ‘Hans’ Siemens becoming the charge-hand at Smart & Browns.

Terry Alban of Shefford was friends with another ex-German PoW named Paul Moniker, a radio operator captured in France who was transferred to the camp at Harrison’s Farm, Lower Gravenhurst, near Shillington. Paul met his wife Mary Jepps, an English land girl, there and although he still had family in East Germany where his parents farmed, he never returned. At the end of the war he and Mary moved to Bury Road, Shillington near what was then the Noah’s Ark pub.

Terry met and befriended Paul when they were both working at Ironbridge Poultry Farm owned by T Lyons in Lower Gravenhurst between 1963 and 1969. Terry remembers that Paul had a Ford Anglia. Paul and Mary died three to four years ago but had two daughters, both married and now living in Luton.

As well as a camp at Clapham, there were camps around the brick fields of Bedford in Lidlington, Houghton Conquest, Church Farm in Marston Moretaine and at Chimney Corner. In Ampthill there were camps on Park Road and Houghton Road.

Josie Tyler who lives in Maulden befriended ex-German PoW Irwin Beurenger who had been in the Ampthill Camp following capture in Italy and described him as a “lovely man”. After the war, Josie’s husband worked in the motor trade with East German born Irwin but before the war, Irwin had been apprenticed to and was living with the local blacksmith. He was 18 and about to become a fully fledged blacksmith when he was conscripted.

“I no more wanted to fight British chaps I didn’t know than fly!” he confided to the Tylers.

Originally posted to North Africa, Irwin had been a driver for Field Marshall von Rommel – the famous Desert Rat, and got to know him very well, describing him as “a real soldier”, with high standards who wouldn’t simply kill for the sake of it. When sharing food from their dixie tins, von Rommel wouldn’t ask to be served separately but would sit with the other men. Like many PoW, Irwin met an English girl named Olive and they married and had two daughters, playing their part in building up post war Britain.