Leeds soldier force marched to prisoner of war camp

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  • Leeds soldier captured at Dunkirk aged 21 He is force marched 410km on little food Spends 1,788 days as POW
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Last week, in the first part of our serialisation of the war diary of Leeds soldier Harry Goodall, we told how he was captured by the Nazis aged just 21. Harry was called up for national service in October 1939, aged just 20. He joined the Royal Army Service Corps, part of the 51st Highland Division and was a driver. He was deployed to France in January 1940 and was captured at Dunkirk on June 12. This week, we reveal more details of his account, how he was force marched over hundreds of miles and eventually imprisoned, spending 1,788 days as a prisoner-of-war...

“The long column of men trudged on into the countryside. Hour after hour, we plodded along the roads in the hot sunshine. Passing through the villages, people came out with buckets of water. Having no cup or tin, I was obliged to scoop up the water with my hands to satisfy my thirst. My spirits were lifted for a while when much to my surprise one of the German guards on the column offered me a piece of English chocolate saying, “In England very much sport”... and then went on to say something I was to hear many times in the next few months, ‘For you the war is over’.

“This glorious hot summer day was drawing to a close as we were herded into a field surrounded by guards.

“The first day of what was to be 1,788 days of being a POW; life was at an end. In the early morning next day, it began to rain. All we could do was to shuffle around the field until it was time to move for another day’s march.

“It was most important to me now to get hold of a mess tin, pot or can, a container of some kind to hold some liquid or whatever there was on offer during the day.

“We moved out on to the road and this long column of men began walking in a northerly direction.

“I soon realised it was best to be near the head of the column and on the outside line for then it was possible to look ahead and if any food was offered, being on the outside, I could quickly dash across the road along with dozens of others and with a bit of pushing around I was sometimes lucky and got a piece of bread - depending on the German guards not shooting.

“After two hours, we had a 15 minute rest - most often to relieve nature - or to use ‘toilet paper’. For ‘toilet paper’ read grass, straw or any bits of paper we picked up during the day. Paper was also a top priority along with food and water.

“Passing through the countryside it was possible to slip off and unearth a few potatoes. As it was only June, they were very small but it was something to chew.

“After about three days we came to the town of Doullens and we were marched down a long slope into an old quarry… and in the gloom heard and saw another group of prisoners [and] among them familiar faces: two of the men from our unit, Clem Henry and Norman Bradley.

“The following morning we were off again. On to St Pol. Round the outskirts of Lille, across the border into Belgium and the town of Tournai.

“On to Renaix-Aalst. At Aalst we slept on the concrete floor of an empty factory. Then on to Lokeren. At this place near the Dutch border our long walk came to an end. The information that we picked up each day and from some of the guards: we had walked 410 kilometres - 255 miles in 14 days, averaging 18 miles a day on virtually no food at all or very little.

“The Germans told us the long walk we had done was because the railways and bridges had been blown up. I saw very little evidence of this. It was simply a propaganda march, showing the people of Northern France, Belgium and Holland the defeated remnants of the British Army and what a sight we must have looked, not having washed or shaved for some four weeks, sweating day by day in the hot sunshine, covered in dust and dirt from lying in fields and factory floors. The summer of 1940 as I remember was blazing hot, so I suppose we had at least a suntan.

“A great feeling of sadness came over me, remembering Frances and I had been [with her] almost a year ago to the day at LIandudno. Where was she now? What was she doing? When would we ever meet again if at all to sunbathe on a holiday beach together? These were some of the thoughts passing through my mind and a deep depression came over me and my spirit hit rock bottom. I remember vividly that summer afternoon in 1940.

“We were taken through the streets of Wesel. Every window in every building was covered with the black Swastika on a red background. The streets were packed, everyone with giving the Hitler salute, booing and shouting. Some were spat upon.

“Leaving Wesel we were on the road again. How long we walked I don’t know. [Eventually we came to a field containing] long, low, wooden sheds surrounded with a high wooden fence. I flopped down on the floor exhausted, my spirit at a very low ebb, thinking of Frances and home. Did they know what had taken place? Had they given me up for lost? Was it a hopeless situation? What would tomorrow bring?

“It was still dark when we were roused and marched out. We met up with the rest of the column in a large field, with a railway line alongside.

“A German officer told us to prepare for a three day railway journey and we would be given rations for three days - a loaf of bread between three men and a small piece of margarine. Three men to a loaf would be considered good for one day, but not three. Some camps I was in later gave five to a loaf, others seven to a loaf and when we entered the gates of a camp in the early days the cry went up “How many to a loaf?” This gave us a quick estimation of what sort of camp it might be, good-fair or bad.”

Next week, read how Harry and his pals survived the camps and the small acts of kindness which kept their hopes up…

Christmas from the archives. 1916 The Captives Christmas at Lofthouse Park