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Dad's Dad's Army
I believe this to be an absolutely true story without embellishment or exaggeration. The person that told me had no reason to lie. It was also independently corroborated by another witness many, many years later. My only contribution was to add the circumstances and a post script.
It is another tale about my dear old Stepfather. Told to me first by one of his farm workers and when I was just a child.
During the Second World War Dad had farmed a smallholding in the Fens. He had rented just thirty acres of windswept and wet land from early 1938, more than a year before war was declared. For him it meant he held a ‘Reserved Occupation’ as a farmer. Essential to the war effort in helping supply the besieged nation with food. He did his bit for his country though. Immediately the home defence force, later called The Home Guard, was formed he joined it. He quickly found favour with his commanders and was promoted. Towards the end of the war and also after the end of hostilities but before prisoners were allowed to be repatriated, my Stepfather volunteered to accommodate a few German Prisoners of War. As indeed did many farmers in that region at the time.
It must be said that only the less hostile of German soldiers were selected as suitable for ‘farming out’ and equally history shows that most enemy prisoners were none to keen to escape and return to their homeland either, given the deprivations in their war ravaged country. Many also knew they had nothing and no families to return to. Nonetheless it was a job involving a high level of responsibility and theoretically at least, some risk.
A prisoner hut was provided and erected by the state on Dad’s rented land. It was designed to house two or three prisoners in very basic but clean, dry and secure accommodation. Dad had to lock the prisoners in each night and every morning wake them early, provide them with breakfast then march them under the point of a Lee Enfield rifle into the fields to work.
One day in Autumn and during apple picking time my Dad along with a couple of his regular workers and also his two prisoners were all walking from the farmyard down the lane to the apple orchards. Fuel was scarce so rather than carting ladders, apple boxes and baskets by tractor and trailer, as would normally have been the case, everything had to be carried by hand.
Along with various other officials such as health care people, British Red Cross representatives etc., a Captain in the Home Guard would regularly visit to check and see everything was in order. Imagine how the conversation ensued when Dad, who was bringing up the rear of his little band of merry men was caught up by the unannounced visiting Captain. Dad was carrying a treasured lightweight, best spruce and ash, twenty two foot harvesting ladder. A valuable commodity in those austere days.
“Sergeant Knight! Where’s your rifle man?” yells the Captain.
“Fritz has got it. I wouldn’t trust a stupid Kraut to carry my best ladder.”
“You’re on a charge! Have you gone mad?”
“What’s all the fuss about?” replies Dad. “I never load the f****** thing!”
I’ve finished soldiering now.
For the day anyway.
Post Script: Fritz sent a Christmas card every year to my Stepfather right up to 1991. The year after he died. I realised the poor man did not know my Stepfather had died as no one had thought to inform him. I found Fritz's German telephone number in a couple of letters Fritz had written, in halting English, to my Dad and so I phoned him to break the bad news. He cried during the call.