Gifts from POWs call back the past

2008-12-11 00:00

A number of readers responded to the recent articles by Stephen Coan about the murder of a German prisoner-of-war by fellow soldiers in the Pietermaritzburg POW camp during World War 2.

Jenny Aitchison’s late grandfather Ernest Watson Atkinson was a staff sergeant in the South African Medical Corps. “He worked at the camp and was given many gifts by prisoners.” Among them were a watercolour of an alpine scene with a church in the foreground and the inscription “Bergtapello (Bayern)”, and drawing of an impala. These are thought to be by a German prisoner-of-war. Both are signed Stumm ’42. There is also a drawing of a snowy alpine scene thought to be by the same artist.

Aitchison also has a metal military water bottle engraved with an Egyptian scene on one side and the arms of the Union of South Africa on the other with her grandfather’s number, regiment, rank and name alongside. On the base of the water bottle is inscribed the name of the Italian POW who did the engraving: Cesare Boltraffio, P.O.W., Italian, INC., P.M.B., 26.5.42.

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Brian Davies also recalled memories of Italian and German prisoners-of-war and wrote this reminiscence of life in Pietermaritzburg during wartime.

On May 1, 1942, I turned 14. Our family, consisting of my father and mother, my maternal grandmother and me, lived in Taylor Road, Scottsville. I was then a pupil at St Charles College. We all knew of the rows and rows of bell tents comprising the prisoner-of-war camp along the side of the main road between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. One of my father’s friends, a little too old for ordinary military service, was a staff sergeant in the South African Defence Force, doing administrative work at the camp. His home was near us and he visited us often, sometimes with souvenirs he had obtained from some of the prisoners.

Many of the Italian prisoners of war were released on parole and worked on farms. The camp itself was set on shallow soil with strata of shale underneath the surface.

Some of the Italians were expert in stone carving. In those days most men, and many women, smoked. Cigarette cases that fitted into the pocket were popular gifts and wooden carved cigarette boxes graced many a table. A surprising number of the Italian prisoners carved fine cigarette boxes with smoothly fitted lids, that shut with a satisfactory sort of thump. The boxes were carved and smoothed from shale lumps, pale grey, soft and smooth to the touch. Some had ornate arabesques carved on panels in the lids. But where did those lumps of shale come from? It was known in town that the camp was pitched on shale beds. A story went around our suburb that the prisoners were secretly tunnelling through the shale to form a mine which would end on the embankment through which the road passed, not far from the old “Star and Garter” public house. Were those cigarette boxes and other ornaments carved in shale coming from the tailings of that mine?

We thought so and rumour had it that the tunnel had been revealed to the authorities by some of the prisoners, and that there had been a great commotion in the camp, with some prisoners being charged by the guards and others being charged by fellow prisoners with betrayal.

One of my cousins, Daphne Fellows, was a nurse at Grey’s Hospital at the time, and often came on her days off to visit us, and my grandmother in particular. She had seen the construction of three “pre-fabricated” wards in the lovely open gardens in front of the old Grey’s, as it faced Commercial Road (as it was then called). These were for use by the military authorities and were dubbed M.1, M.2, and M.3. I believe there are wards in the hospital still bearing those numbers to this day.

I can remember my cousin telling us how charming some of the prisoners were, and that they gave little gifts to some of their special nurses. One of the German POWs gave her a soldier’s first aid pack. It was on display at our house. With a pale grey cover of rubberised material, it held a wad of cotton to be used as a stanching agent in the event of the soldier being wounded in action in the field. On the cover there were instructions for its use printed in German, with an emblem consisting of the swastika in a circle.

It was still sealed and had never been used. My cousin allowed me to see it provided I did not break the seal. Unfortunately the fingers of a curious 14-year-old boy just had to prise it open just a bit. A little family altercation followed later when this was discovered.

I can remember taking our dog for a cross-country run one afternoon, and, jogging along what is now Murray Road, encountered a pair of Italian prisoners on parole out for a walk. We shouted friendly greetings to one another, neither of us understanding the language of the other.

A language difficulty of another sort occurred when the Polish division was quartered at Hay Paddock Camp. Hundreds of Polish soldiers, recently released from Russian prison camps after Hitler’s invasion of Russia were brought here to be re-equipped, regrouped and trained for further combat in the war zones of the Mediterranean.

They were ravenously hungry and could be seen sitting outside tea rooms in the gutter in groups sharing a loaf of dry bread. One Sunday afternoon my father had some petrol to spare and drove with my grandmother and myself into town, and offered to take two of the Poles for a drive. They came with alacrity, and then we tried to understand who they were, and they tried to learn who we were. We tried English, Afrikaans, Latin and Zulu but then gave up. Possibly they were trying Polish, Russian and German, and also gave up. We gathered they thought my father was married to my grandmother, but we shook our heads at this idea.

My dad drove us up to Howick and showed them the Howick Falls. There was a path down the cliff face nearer the platform than the one currently in use, and these two well-built men got out of the car, waved and plunged off down the path. They came back about half-an-hour later, having got to the bottom.

We gave them tea and scones, and then drove back down to Pietermaritzburg. They borrowed a fountain pen and on the back of a cigarette box wrote out for us their names and home addresses. We promised to write when the war was over, but did they understand us? I think my dad gave them his name and address also, and so we parted in the centre of town where they were soon lost to view in the numerous groups of Polish men all clad in new khaki battle dress wandering around the city hall precincts.

Many years later I spoke to a friend, my senior by about 10 years, about that incident. He had been a private in the Royal Natal Carbineers and had served in the Italian campaign. He described the preparations for the attack on the impregnable site of Monte Cassino, and said their regiment was drawn up at the side of an approach road when lorry after lorry full of Polish soldiers drove past up to the front. The assault failed and he said sadly that in the evening lorry after lorry full of dead Polish soldiers was driven back down the hillside road past them.

I have often wondered if our two passengers at Howick were part of that Polish Brigade. Did their plunge down the sides of the kloof to the Umgeni’s pool at the bottom presage any similar dash up or down steep hillsides underneath Monte Cassino during that battle ? Did they survive? One has one’s doubts. But one also has one’s hopes that they did, even if wounded.

A better death awaited them perhaps than being executed by their fellow prisoners of war in a dusty tent in the camp near the Star and Garter in Pietermaritzburg.

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