Bert Dowty’s Story - continued...
Perhaps I should remind you of the story so far. Bert had survived being shot down by a Me109, evaded capture in occupied France for over two weeks, was eventually captured by occupying Germans and incarcerated in an old fort. He escaped via a tunnel and then a hair-raising descent on a home-made sisal rope reinforced with pieces of blanket. He headed for Nice but after an unlucky encounter with guards in a field of long grass, he was rewarded with 30 days of solitary confinement. He was then moved several times, to Chamboron Isere in the French Alps and then by rail to Ferrara, Italy. A further escape attempt enraged the camp commandant, prompting yet another move, this time to Stalag VIIA near Moosberg, Germany.
Bert Dowty (left) and Lancaster pilot 'Hughie' Crum
The winter of 1944/1945 was not good to us. It was very cold, the wind chill was the problem, and the Krauts were short of fuel.
On top of this problem, the authorities were taking reprisals for what it appeared to be the shortcomings of their troops in the desert. They first removed every other bed board, then the straw from the palliasse, this made life even more uncomfortable. Apparently the German Pows in North Africa were sleeping in tents. This was the High Command view that the International Rules were not being applied. Shortages were also noticed in many ways. The war was biting now.
The days were passed now by watching the streams of B17 bombers passing high overhead, streaming vapour trails as they went. We all presumed they were going in the Kiel/ Wilhelmshaven direction.
Later they were covered by a large number of fighters which made things interesting, watching the combats go on overhead.
Bert holding court at a 44 Sqn Association reunion event
To help to make life bearable, we always had nightlights, which made from small tins that originally contained cheese from the British Red Cross parcels. We would collect axle grease from the Dilly Cart that the Russian POWs used to use, and a piece of pyjama cord or sisal string would be the wick. A full tin would last several days.
But our pride and joy was our Blower. It was made out of everything you could muster, old bed boards, leather laces from old boots and the empty tins saved and cleaned, such as old powdered milk tins. They would be trimmed and flattened, ready to be made into fans, fan boxes, and fire boxes. These were lined with a wet clay type soil, and moulded into something resembling a blacksmith forge. In fact when in action it acted as a forge.
The whole aim was to get the maximum heat from the minimum of fuel. Fuel was collected from the ashes outside the cookhouse from any unspent coal, or from wood shavings obtained from bed frames etc. Most of the meal could be cooked in five minutes, but my best menu was Spotted Dick. This was made from grated spuds, squeezed dry, to extract all the starchy water, put together with raisins from Red Cross parcels, and sugar and marge. It was wrapped up in a clean vest and boiled for as long as fuel would permit. This was consumed with cream made from powdered milk normally Kilm, which was found in Canadian parcels. This was a treat that only came once in a while as the parcels did not arrive often enough. Then we had to share one between two, four or eight people.
Being in a combine made life bearable because sharing with four or six persons, you seemed to have a better variety of meals. I was normally the gatherer, more so when we went on the march. Sandy was still with me. We, in fact, were the only members of the crew that stayed together all of the three years.
The end of March 1945 arrived, the news was getting better each day, but the front was still some way away from our camp. The Krauts were getting anxious now. We were to be taken out on a grand march. The whole camp divided into five columns. We had to take what we could, never to return. If you had any food stored up, this had to be carried by any means possible. If you had seen the devices that had been thought of for carrying, it was time for a big laugh.
Crum was at this moment in camp sick quarters, and he stayed where laid. Why didn’t we think like this?
We all left the camp in good humour, and the old marching songs were heard from column to column. This soon turned to gloom, when mile after mile was covered. Those with contraptions to push soon found that exhausting, and the countryside soon became littered with these objects. We covered some 17-20 miles on the first day. We were stopped in open area and made our bed for the night under the stars. Luck was with us, for about ten days we had no rain. Day after day it was the same slog, and lack of food soon began to tell on most of us. Apart from the 200 grams of bread, and margarine, that was all we had, until one day the Germans issued us with one piece of meat about 25 grams to each, and another day two potatoes.
One of the funniest spectacles on the march was when one morning a poor farmer had opened a clamp of kartoffel (potatoes), then passing came 800 hungry Brits. The need was greater for the POWs, so all bar none helped themselves, pocketing as many as possible. Then came the theatre; the Hauptman (Capt), seeing the problem, quickly jumped on the clamp, pulling out his revolver at the same time, then shouted at the top of his voice, “ Anyone taking kartoffel will be shot.” The last I saw of him that day was when he slid down the heap on his backside as it gave way under his feet, with his pistol in the air.
Food was to be gathered, and I was the retriever in our combine. When we left the Luneburg Plain, we found smaller places, like farms, contained food to satisfy our needs. My first attempt was domesticated rabbit, when we stopped for the night near some farm buildings. Now this was not thought out by the Hun and soon bods were sussing out the target.
I had seen these hutches, and soon I had two rabbits under my greatcoat to take back to the lads. Much to the disgust of some, I skinned and gutted one, then, when I started the other. found it was with young. Not to be outdone, as I couldn’t fancy it, I offered it for sale for 20 fags, got a buyer at the drop of the hand.
This I thought was good trading, so the incentive was born. Next it would be eggs, and then grain, until the pockets bulged. But it was my downfall at that time. We cooked the grain on the blower, it was good, and filled us. But we then all had a dose of the sh- one’s, it was not funny on the march. I think it had been treated seed.
We arrived on the west banks of the River Elbe, where we were halted for a while. Then suddenly there was air activity overhead. Spitfires, guess they were on reconnaissance, but without warning an ack-ack gun opened up, hidden from our view by the river bank. Guys leapt in all directions. Some ran across the road into what they thought was good cover in the tall grass. Why? I shall never know. The grass turned out to be reeds, and that area was full of water. All came back soaked.
After about two hours we started to move again. This time across a railway bridge, to the other side. This, by the way, was the 17th April, the third anniversary of the Augsburg raid.
The march continued. It started to rain and did so for the next two days. We were all stopped in the open, a field had been selected, and that’s where we were intended to stay. We hurried to make a watertight bed and the six of us were down for the night. Rain! It did not stop all next day. They offered some housing in the local church, but not for us as you would have been much colder in that church, as we were to learn next morning.
We were moved off on the march again. The news we had was getting better and the 2nd Army were not far away now. Yes we had the news each day. This was supplied by Bristow and Mogg, from the Nine o’clock News on the BBC (the radio is on show at RAF Museum at Hendon.) Dixey Deans would distribute a news sheet to each column as he went to check all was well each day.
About 1100hrs we arrived at a village called Gresse. In the main street two large lorries were parked, packed with Red Cross parcels. These had been obtained via Swedish Red Cross by the pressure of Dixey Deans on the Huns to supply food urgently. We understood this supply came via Lubeck.
The distribution started. We were in the first column, one parcel between two. We had to move fast, and we gathered pace up the road. We were then about a mile or so from the village. The column then turned to the right, off the road onto what seemed to be a cart track between two ploughed fields, each side lined with poplar-type trees just breaking leaf. When all the column was off the road we were halted.
Then parcels were opened in quick time. I think the first were the cigarettes, they were contained in American parcels, then the grub. Sandy and I tucked in, we had only about 25 minutes before the order “Raus”! We started to pack, and prepared for the off. I was tying the blanket roll on to Sandy’s back. When there was one Almighty bang! Then the sound of aircraft coming out of the sun into the wind almost silent in their approach. They strafed us first with rockets then cannon, of the 20mm type. Four went through before you had time to think. Carnage around us! I turned and shouted to Sandy to start running. I went at a flat-out pace into the ploughed field. Sandy stumbled into the ditch. I had run about 100 metres. When I looked up the aircraft started to come in again, the first had just two rockets. I had in my coat pocket an old vest which I used as a handkerchief. This I tried to extract from my pocket to wave at approaching aircraft, but some form of paralysis affected me. I could not move for several seconds. I looked at the aircrew boss, when suddenly the two rockets were fired. They seemed to pass close to my ear lobe, but it was down the column they strafed again.
The second, then the third, came in again. Then, to my surprise, the fourth peeled away as though he had seen we were not a German column on the move. I was reluctant to return for fear of finding Sandy killed. But I had to. Mutilated bodies everywhere - cries of agony. Who do you attend first? My aim was to find Sandy. This I did, and, wonderfully, he was still untouched.
We went back to our kit, and where I had stood before the attack, were two of our combine dead. I had been lucky once again. I have never understood how I was missed by bullets. Had Sandy not been in a standing position in front of me, he surely would have been hit.
The aftermath of this was to attend to as many of the injured as one could. I went to a call for diggers in the church yard, with Sandy looking after our kit and the rest of the combine. They all helped. You could not fail to. It was some hours before all were attended to. We presumed the injured were taken away to a hospital nearby. Those that were pronounced dead, were taken to the church yard. By the time we had finished digging it was nearing dusk. We were then marched away to a hamlet some two miles away and housed in a barn on a farm. About 280 men were left here. What happened to the others, we did not know. All of us were shattered after that experience and it was some days before most of us came to life again. When we did, it was to place out on the open ground signs that could be seen from above saying POWs, with a red cross. We did not want that to happen again. Dixey Deans, we heard, had gone with a Hun officer carrying a white flag to the British lines. We understood that a complaint was made to the advancing General to curb the air attacks that could not be proved to be German.
He returned after three days with the assurance that these air attacks would cease when verification could not be proved. No more were known to us anyway.
The days went by and still no more Hun rations were forthcoming, so it was back to the stealing mode. We had a bit of luck when an old sow appeared in the farm yard, with a litter of about six piglets. One had to take every opportunity and under the overcoat went one piglet. then there were only five remaining. There was a squeal and with a hand over the snout she was soon dealt with. Lovely! We put a stick up its rear end, out through its nose and had it spit-roasted. It did not take long. By golly it was good! (KFC, where were you!?)
This photo of Bert was taken in November 2001 at Evreux Cemetery in Normandy, France, where Sgt Rhodes and his crew are buried