Of gifts, shoes and new friends

2009-01-07 00:00

The article by Stephen Coan about the murder of a German prisoner-of-war by his fellow soldiers in the Pietermaritzburg POW camp during World War 2 drew several responses from readers. Those from Jenny Aitchison and Brian Davies were published last month. Now a further three Witness readers share their reminiscences of the POW camps in Pietermaritzburg.

Rex Boreham

I have a 300-millimetre high stone carving engraved “Lily Marlen” with her standing under a lamppost kissing a soldier and with a cat rubbing up against her leg. This was carved from shale by, I presume, one of the prisoners at this camp although it has the name W. Kubalskj on it, which sounds as though it could have been one of the Polish soldiers referred to by Brian Davies. It was handed down from my grandparents, who lived about two kilometres away from the camp, to my parents and then on to me.

I also had numerous pairs of miniature shoes that were made from old bread by the prisoners at the camp which I gave to Graham Dominy of the Natal Museum many years ago and which I presume are still on display there. These little shoes were made with great care and in minute detail and coloured, I was told, with colouring made from the different colours of shale found at the camp.

Jean Mitchell

In September 1939, at the start of World War 2, I was a child of 10 living with my family in a small rented cottage at the bottom of New England Road. This was where New England Road ended and the dusty gravel road called New England Extension began. Opposite our house was the lush and sprawling St John’s DSC vegetable garden. There were four houses below ours and beyond them a little stream, and then just fields and hills of wild grass. In season, these fields gave generously of the beauty of Fire lilies, Belladonna lilies, scrambling evergreen ferns and delicious mushrooms. At the end of each summer, hay was cut on the large hill. For me, my siblings and friends this was a truly wonderful playground.

With the outbreak of World War 2, this hill became Hay Paddock Camp, a tented camp which, for five years and more, was occupied by thousands of troops from around the world. We had front-row seats (our gates, trees and hedges) watching the soldiers marching to the tented camp. These men embarked at a railway siding at the top of Oribi Road. Other servicemen arrived in convoys of army trucks and waves and friendly greetings were exchanged with the men in uniform.

The first to occupy the Hay Paddock camp were Polish soldiers who had escaped Hitler’s quick and ruthless occupation of their country. These men sang as they marched and their voices were strong and brave. Our great excitement was that many of these Polish soldiers had brought their young sons with them. These lads were saved from Hitler’s forces but sadly the women and children were sent to concentration camps. These Polish boys became new playmates for our games of hockey and rounders; we always had a language barrier to manage.

Hay Paddock Camp was the first of three big camps for troops in Pietermaritzburg. Oribi Camp was built during the early years of the war as a nursing hospital for wounded, injured and recovering war casualties. This, unlike Hay Paddock, was not tented but was built as a hospital with wards, messes and administration blocks. My father joined the South African Medical Corps. He was “found” by a couple of army doctors while working as a cabinetmaker and carpenter for E. C. Horner & Sons who were contracted to build Oribi Hospital. They needed someone in the medical corps to fashion wooden legs as rudimentary limbs for wounded soldiers awaiting more advanced prostheses.

At this time the Italian prisoner-of-war camp came into being way beyond the end of old Durban Road and the boundaries of the Scottsville golf club. The hospital at Oribi also assisted with patients from this prisoner-of-war camp. Today I have an exceptional and interesting staff sergeant’s baton intricately carved from a piece of jacaranda wood from a tree in the grounds of the Italian prisoner-of-war camp. My father had made a wooden leg for an Italian prisoner which gave him some extra support and allowed him a little more movement. In appreciation he presented my father with a beautifully executed piece of carving patiently done with inadequate tools. A gift to be treasured always.

Tony Moyes

I remember attending the Girls’ Collegiate Pre-Primary School which was then located on the corner of Burger Street and Killarney (Terrace) and having to be assembled daily to practise air-raid drills by being led by the teachers in a “crocodile” to the basement parking of the neighbouring Strathallen Mansions — our air-raid shelter. At that stage my family were living in the Imperial Hotel annex in Loop Street and we had air- raid bunkers dug in the gardens for the residents to use on the occasion of any Axis bombing raids which the German high command could decide to stage against such a vital and strategic target as Pietermaritzburg. Within a month these bunkers were rendered useless as they became flooded with the heavy rains.

Although one can smile now at the enthusiasm, and perhaps pessimism of the authorities, it must be remembered that in 1939 when the SABC had about 20 police reservists permanently stationed at their World’s View site, a German radio station (I think Radio Essen) broadcast with some amused disdain that even a “little South African town called Pietermaritzburg” was anticipating a war and had mounted 20 armed guards to protect their installation. They didn’t mention that the majority of these guards were only armed with lethal assegais. The German radio station also failed to mention that the area was briefly surrounded by an electrified fence but after about 10 days the fence had managed to electrocute three or four donkeys that had unwittingly strayed against it.

Joking aside, the German spy network was very good and this leads to the poor Polish troops that found themselves in the Hay Paddock transition camp.

There were about 5 000 Polish soldiers and soon they were being entertained by local Pietermaritzburg residents. My family adopted two of these men, Mietek and Vitold, and we took them out regularly for sightseeing drives to Howick or Durban. On one of these trips we took them to Mitchell Park [in Durban] where they had an opportunity to ride the elephant, Nellie. If my memory serves me, Nellie was later sent to Australia. I remember a local song in which Nellie proclaimed her love for Jumbo, but he asked her why she was leaving him and going to Aussieland? I am not sure if there was a second elephant called Jumbo.

Then one day when we went to collect our Polish friends we found that they were gone. We later learnt that they were “off north”. Now the tale takes a sad turn and may be of help for Davies as to the fate of these Poles.

Our most infamous South African spy, Robbie Leibrandt, clandestinely radioed a lurking U-boat about their departure from Durban by troopship. Their ship was duly sunk by the

U-boat and the majority of soldiers perished, including Mietek. However, the U-boat collected a few of the survivors, of which Vitold was one. Eventually, he found himself interned in a POW camp in Sicily. He was later freed by the Americans and transferred to Edinburgh.

While he was in Pietermaritzburg he remembered my father telling him that he had family in this city and so after consulting the phone directory he presented himself at my uncle’s home. They became good friends and my uncle was able to advise us of the fate of these Polish soldiers.

Vitold was never able to return to his home in Poland as he did not want to experience Russian rule and we later all lost contact with him after the war ended.

As Davies remembered, the Italian POWs also became a part of the war history of Pietermaritzburg. Whenever we drove along the then main road to Durban we would see these men forlornly watching us from their barbed-wire camp.

Very soon various items that they crafted appeared on the shelves of local shops. There were the sandstone ashtrays and carvings, model fighter planes beautifully made from wood, and delicate miniature pairs of Dutch clogs made from bread.

Yes, many of these Italians later took parole and worked on surrounding farms where some of their well-constructed barns and outhouses are still in use to this day. I have one of their metal engraved cigarette cases that was done in October 1942.

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