Veteran Stories:
Alan Lawrence

Air Force

  • Photo of Mr. Lawrence with his crew in St. Eval, Cornwall, England in June 1942. They are standing in front of their Armstrong Whitworth Whitley modified with long range tanks and depth charges instead of bombs. The crew is on Coastal Command hunting U-boats in the Bay of Biscay. Everyone in the photo except Mr Lawrence was killed over France in February 1943. Mr. Lawrence survived because he got the flu and ended up in the sick bay.

    Alan Lawrence
  • Photo of Alan Lawrence around Christmas 1941 about to go on a flight over the North Sea in Armstrong Whitley Bombers equipped with VGO guns.

    Alan Lawrence
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"Then the train started; after that, we get in the train and they never even shut the doors. Get moving, get moving. The train was just starting to move and one of these skeleton figures ran up beside the train and he says, 'help, help,' in English."

Transcript

Slowly, the weather started to get better and then it started raining, which was worse than snow actually. And they said, we’re going to Stalag VIII-A at Görlitz [Germany; the former German prisoner of war camp is located in what is now Zgorzelec, Poland]. So we thought, oh, there’ll be lots of food at Görlitz and lots of things to do. So finally we did get to Görlitz; and as we were going, marching into the gates of Görlitz, there’s a great mass of people marching out [in February 1945, as the Soviets approached]. And they said, we’re marching out, there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there; and of course, they were marching a great mass of prisoners out and marching us in. And it turned out, there was nothing there. There was hardly anything at all. But we managed to get something out of the cookhouse and managed to get some food, a bit of bread and stuff. So we were there for about three or four days and then they started marching us out again; and Ron [his closest friend] says, I’m not going on another march. I said, no, I’m not either, but then they said, those people who can’t march must go in front of the Stabzarzt [surgeon major]. The Stabzarzt is an army doctor.

So Ron and I just, with a bunch of others, we had to go in front of the Stabzarzt and strip to the waist; and they felt around to see if we were strong enough, and all the rest of it. I was allowed to stay behind and Ron was told to go on the march. So Ron says to me, I’m not going without you; I know what, I’m going to come back. He said, I’m going to fall down and pretend I’ve fainted, and someone will pull me back into the camp. So that’s what he did. So we were back together again.

So then we were what they would call the sick, lame and lazy; they thought we couldn’t march, we couldn’t do anything. We were too weak. So then they said, you can march to the station. We have a railway train for you. So we managed to get on the march from the camp to this railway station at Görlitz. We were walking down the road; and we saw people waiting at the bus stop. One man had a box, a long length of bread in the box, French bread, sticking out. And as we were marching past, we kept saying, pinch the bread, pull the bread out when he’s not looking, pull the bread out. So like a fool, as I passed, I pulled a loaf out and he saw me; and he was on my back punching me and screaming. And I heard the guard cock his rifle; I heard the bolt go clank and I thought, oh, he was going to shoot me, he’ll shoot me. But the guard happened to be a Volkssturm guard [German national militia, mainly young boys and old men not in the uniformed services], they was what you call the home guard. He didn’t want to do anything like that, so he just the guy, take the bread back and everything. There was no bread by that time. Everyone had grabbed a piece of it and eaten it. The only person who didn’t get any bread was me.

And then so when that episode was over, we marched to the railway station; and there was a train waiting there with trucks. We got on these wagons, and waited around. And suddenly, the train started moving; and we chugged along for a day or so, stopping for water and stopping for food, soup or something. And then we were coming to a big city; and I, afterwards, found out, I didn’t know at the time, that it was Dresden. And right at that time, they started to bomb the hell out of Dresden, the Americans and the British; and we were under friendly fire again. All the bombing and all the crap going on. And so then we got away into sort of a quiet siding. The train stopped because the railway line had all got blown up.

And there was all these people with these striped pajamas. They were people, from Jews, from Auschwitz [concentration camp] and places like that were used as labour. And they were all terrible, dying people, thin as rakes. Awful looking. They were fixing the railway line and all that stuff. So we were sitting waiting. The doors were open because they’d opened the doors to let us get out and do our business, crapping and peeing, and all that stuff. It had gone quiet and we heard these planes flying around, and machine gun sound. And Ron says, "what are those guys running across that field for?" And I said, "they’re our guys, there’s someone firing at them." So we jumped out and we were being attacked by American [North American Aviation P-51] Mustang fighters. Of course, we ran. I ran down into a ditch and I was running down the ditch, and this Mustang was coming straight at me. There was an Australian guy running after and he kept saying, "I’ve lost my spoon, I’ve lost my spoon." I said, "what, who cares about your spoon? Why do you want a spoon?" "I can’t eat anything without a spoon, I can’t!" I said, "for Christ’s sake, lie down." And he lay on top of me; and these planes are zooming around, letting go, they were a big mass of cannon fire and it hit the railway line between my legs. I thought I was all shot to pieces, but it missed us both; and it was a shower of stones that came up from the cannon shells.

And so then the airplane disappeared and we walked back to the train to find that a lot of guys had been shot and killed. And then they had to clean all the dead guys out and all the rest of it, and take their dog tags off and all this stuff.

And then the train started; after that, we get in the train and they never even shut the doors. Get moving, get moving. The train was just starting to move and one of these skeleton figures ran up beside the train and he says, "help, help," in English. He says, "I’m an American civilian, I was captured in..."; and he was chattering, and help me, help me. So Ron and I put our hands out and pulled him onboard. And we thought, for God’s sake, keep this train going, if it stops again, they’ll find he’s missing, and they’ll come and shoot 10 of us at least. And so the train speeded up and we got going.

We got this guy onboard and he told us that he’s Jewish and he was taken in Italy; and he was an American. And at any rate, we took his, this, these, they called it pajamas, off him. It was horrible looking stuff and I never seen such a thin guy in my life. And we had several uniforms we got from the soldiers that had been killed; and we got one uniform and put it on him, it was a British army uniform. We put the dog tags of the guy whose uniform it was, around his neck. We said, you’re now part of The Royal Welch Fusiliers regiment and remember that, and try and disguise your American accent. If anyone asks you, tell them you’re a Welshman. If you stay that way for the rest of the war, you’ll get better treatment as a prisoner of war than you will from where you’ve been, in Auschwitz, or whatever it was.

Interview date: 4 November 2010

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