Saturday, 5 January 2013

Sepia Saturday 158: Bill Ball and Work Camp 9, Stalag XXID

I'm taking advantage of a longer than usual break from work in the Solomon Islands to catch up with some long overdue blogging on Photo-Sleuth, starting with an entry for my favourite weekly theme/meme/photo prompt - call it what you will - Sepia Saturday.

Sepia Saturday 158, courtesy of Alan Burnett

The Sepia Saturday prompt this week is one of several photographs on the National Library of Scotland's Flickr photostream depicting Scottish soldiers, complete with kilts and khaki Balmoral bonnets, in the midst of New Year celebrations somewhere on the Western Front during the Great War. Outside a wooden hut, presumably their billet, carrying bagpipes, a drum, bottles and kegs, presumably containing alcohol, and even a football, they are probably far enough away from the front lines that they can enjoy their festivities without too much interference from "the Hun."

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

My own contribution (a recent eBay purchase) likewise shows a group of thirteen military men in front of a wooden hut, but there are few clues in the photograph itself as to the date, event or location.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The reverse of this postcard format photograph, however, reveals a great deal more. Apart from the address, a brief message and a date (January 31st 1942), there is a purple frank which indicates that it was posted from Stalag XXID/9. A series of 18th Century forts in and around Poznan, Poland (Posen was used during the German occupations), together with several labour camps in the surrounding countryside, were used to house prisoners of war (POWs) by the Germans during WW2 and collectively referred to as Stalag XXID.

Image © and courtesy of Anthony Ball
William Leonard Ball (1914-1945)
Courtesy of Anthony Ball

William Leonard Ball (pictured above) is the "Bill" who wishes Mrs JC Robertson of Ashford Common "all the best" on the back of the postcard, and he is the soldier third from right in the back row of the group, his cap peak partially obscuring his face. His nephew Tony Ball very kindly sent me some background information. Bill was with the Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey) when ...
... he was captured by the Germans on the retreat back to Dunkirk on the 13th June 1940 and spent the rest of the war as a POW in two camps, Stalag XXID, and Stalag VIIIB. When the war was nearing its end the Germans marched all the POW's [including Bill] across Germany on what was called the "Great March or Death March." On the 29th April 1945 the marching POW's sighted the Yanks and were liberated.

The bulk of Bill's incarceration appears to have been at Stalag XXID. Although the central camp was housed in Fort Rauch, on the east bank of the River Warthe, several other forts were used, and there were numerous other work camps operating at various times during Stalag XXID's existence.

Image courtesy of Jim Wicketts & WWII Memories.co.uk
The Prisoner of War, April 1943, Vol. 1 No. 12, p. 9
Courtesy of Jim Wicketts & WWII Memories.co.uk

I've not been able to determine the location of Work Camp 9, denoted by the franking on the postcard, but there are references to it (and a photograph) in the April 1943 edition of The Prisoner of War, the official journal of the Prisoners of War Department of the Red Cross and St. John War Organisation in London. One of the occupants writes in a letter home, obviously passing under the censorial eyes of the German authorities:
To Morayshire B.R.C.
Stalag XXID/9. 16.1.43.
"Our spirits here are very high; everybody has a nice smile for his neighbour, but should the Red Cross cease to exist I am afraid it would be a very different story. We occasionally hear of negotiations that have to be made so that you can send us food and clothing, and I assure you everyone appreciates it."

Image courtesy of Stalag Luft I Online by Mary Smith and Barbara Freer
Stalags XXID (Poznan) & VIIIB (Teschen), western and southern Poland
Courtesy of Stalag Luft I Online by Mary Smith and Barbara Freer

Like Bill Ball, Alan Forster of the 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish (Black Watch) was a POW at Stalag XXID from 1940 to 1944. He was moved to Stalag VIIIB in southern Poland, where he worked on a coal mine before being forced to march westwards through Bohemia to Regensburg in Bavaria in the early months of 1945, ahead of the Soviet advance.

Image courtesy of Bill Forster
British POW working party and German guards, near Fort Rauch, Posen
probably c. taken early 1942, Courtesy of Bill Forster

Bill Forster has transcribed his uncle's diaries and these are available on the BBC web pages, WW2 People's War. They are well worth a read, as they give a good feel for the harsh conditions in the working parties at Stalag VIIIB and on the bitterly cold Long March.
He records day by day what at the time seemed most important: food (or the lack of it), the weather, work, Red Cross parcels, letters received from his fiancee, "Bunty" Hancock, and his family ....
Image courtesy of The Pegasus Archive
A column of British POW's, April 1945
from The War Behind The Wire, by Patrick Wilson (Leo Cooper, 2000)
Courtesy of The Pegasus Archive

Once the trek west began he records the places they stopped, the distance covered, the night's billet, rumours, etc. There are references to bombing raids and occasional atrocities committed by the guards to keep the column of prisoners moving away from the advancing troops of the Red Army.
Alan Forster describes the moment of liberation, which must have been very similar to the experience of Bill Ball and many thousands of other POWs:
Monday April 30
This is the Day!! I shall remember this anniversary all the rest of my life for this morning the Americans arrived to free us. The time was 8.30 ... it is now 7.15 pm & I can't yet quite realise just what's happened to me. We have eaten as we liked, bacon, eggs, milk - all those things which we've starved for in 5 long years. It's more than strange to be able to walk around the fields a free man, to do what one likes without a guard's interference - oh to do everything one wishes, only stopped by one's sense of right & justice.
Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums
Lancaster B Mark III carrying liberated British POWS back to the UK, prepares to take off from Lubeck, Germany
Courtesy of Imperial War Museums

From Regensburg Bill Ball's group boarded trains which took them through southern Germany to Juvincourt airfield in north-eastern France. There the ex-Prisoners of War waited to board Lancaster bombers for the flight home, part of the evacuation exercise termed "Operation Exodus."

Image courtesy of Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Clichy Northern Cemetery, Hauts-de-Seine, France
Courtesy of Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Lancaster Bomber 111, serial number RF230-JI-B, one of ten bombers from 514 Squadron commenced the return flight to Waterbeach, England from Juvincourt in France at 12.15 hrs on the 9th May 1945. Not long after take-off the plane crashed into a wooded area 2 miles east-south-east of Roye-Amy and was destroyed by fire, killing all on board. William Leonard Ball and all the other 24 passengers and 6 crew are buried at Clichy Northern Cemetery, on the northern edge of Paris.

Image courtesy of Anthony Ball
Group of POWs at Stalag XXID, Working Camp 9
Bill Ball standing 2nd from left, back row
Courtesy of Anthony Ball

Returning to the postcard group portrait taken at Stalag XXID/9, and armed with a fuller understanding of the conditions prevalent in the camps, it's possible to interpolate further information about the subjects, and more specifically on the day the portrait was taken. A further two group portraits (above and below) include Bill Ball, and were presumably taken on the same occasion.

Image courtesy of Anthony Ball
Group of POWs at Stalag XXID, Working Camp 9
Courtesy of Anthony Ball and The Pegasus Archive

Reports from inmates (see POW Stories) and Red Cross officials indicate that these uniforms, a motley assemblage of tunics, greatcoats and caps, were supplied somewhat sporadically by the Red Cross and German authorities. It is intimated that these group portrait sessions were taken by visiting photographers by arrangement with the camp officials as a PR/propaganda exercise to show how "well" the POWs were being treated. This is from Private George Charlton at Stalag VIIIB/344:
The Germans photographed us and sent the photo home to show that we were still alive.
Sapper Tom Carpenter was at Stalag XIB:
It was about this time that a civilian photographer appeared at our compound. We were each given a board and in turn, our photos were taken with a few details - name, rank and number ... How long before the Red Cross people, family and friends at home would have to wait before notifications of this new status we had no idea, but at least we were now on record as a being.
Both extracts are courtesy of The Pegasus Archive.

Image courtesy of Anthony Ball
Bill Ball (right) and friend, snow under foot, wearing Polish greatcoats at an unidentified POW camp, undated
Courtesy of Anthony Ball and The Pegasus Archive

For me, the poignancy attached to this photographic artefact lies mainly in the fact that it originated, unlike the vast majority of portraits that we see, in such an extraordinary situation, the likes of which most of us are never likely to fully appreciate, let alone experience. Many of our family members who endured such hardships such as service in the front line trenches of the Great War, or internment in POW camps in the Second World War, rarely talked about their experiences, except to fellow servicemen or inmates, and these photographs may be all that we have left. The task of extrapolating the experiences of others - such as the reminiscences on The Pegasus Archive, WWII Memories and the BBC's WW2 People's War - into an authentic story for our own family members is not an easy one, but it is important if we are to understand what made them the people we knew.

12 comments:

  1. I was not expecting the plane crash as they headed home. How tragic on top of all the rest.

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  2. A fascinating amount of detail - so interesting in the week when the oldest ex POW in Germany has died.

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  3. This is so incredible, the actual lives that lived through these events. And pictures too. Thanks so much. It really brings it into perspective for me.

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  4. A very poignant and well told story, Brett. And as you say, an example of a special photo history that the inevitable advance of time makes increasingly difficult to document. I have been doing research on POWs from WW1 and posted a story on similar camp postcards that you might have missed on the Solomon Islands. http://temposenzatempo.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-ww1-prisoner-of-war-camp-orchestra.html

    Thanks for the tip on the Valentine Series. I have more bagpipe photos from that publisher but that will have to wait for another Scottish theme.

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  5. Great to have you back Brett. I always think of you and Mike being in a league of your own when it comes to putting together these fascinating and immaculately researched pieces, which are always such a pleasure to read.
    And well done in tracking down the previous web presence of the Great Dane photo. You have set me a challenge - I will keep on trying to find "virgin scans" and you will, I am sure, keep tracking down their predecessors.

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  6. The words of the POWs are more philosophical and poetic than I would produce under such conditions. I appreciate the research you did.

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  7. Fascinating story and pictures. The plane crash was especially tragic after the men had endured so many hardships and were finally returning home.

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  8. Kristin & Postcardy - Indeed, and it adds to the value in knowing the full story behind the image.

    Bob - It seems only a couple of years ago that the last of the Great War veterans were dying.

    B. Rogers, Mike, Alan & Wendy - Thank you for your kind words. It's good to be blogging again, although I'll admit that it's tough getting that first one out after such a lengthy break.

    Mike - Yes indeed, I did miss your excellent Great War POWs article, so thanks for pointing it out.

    Alan - You have more than enough originality in your own images and words that you post to put the rest of us to shame.

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  9. This is why little scraps of paper are so vitally important. They are often the threads of someones life. And you have done great service to this man and allowed him to forever be part of the electronic files of the net. Let's hope the story you've told is found often and read by many.

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  10. Thank you for the work and research you put into this post. It does give us all more understanding of what these soldiers endured and recognition of these men.

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  11. Your story had my rapt attention all the way to the end. My stomach actually dropped when I read that the plane crashed before those men could get home. Your research an dedication to the story was truly amazing and I thank you for sharing the story of these brave men with us.

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  12. T+L - thank you. I have a fascination for ephemera which on thye surface present something of an enigma, but with a little digging reveal pearls about the incident, subject, photographer, etc. - a sepia moment.

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