Prisoners of War

Westall's 'Children of the Blitz'


Robert Westall (1930-1993) was an art teacher and a famous children's novelist.   His first novel - The Machine Gunners (1975) - won the Carnegie medal.


His novels, which were set in the Second World War, were based partly on his own experiences as a child during the war.   At first, some critics called The Machine Gunners 'far-fetched' - but then other people started writing to him telling him their stories, which were just as amazing.


In 1995, Penguin published some of these stories in the book Children of the Blitz (ISBN 0 330 33485 9).   These extracts are from Chapter 14: Prisoners of War:


Did You Know

Robert Westall was also Branch Director of the Samaritans, a journalist, and an antiques dealer!



WE WENT FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS' holiday in a village near Bethesda in North Wales.

A German bomber came over our heads and crashed into the mountainside.   The crew got out, and in good English they explained how they had just eaten in a Paris restaurant which was very nice.

They said that the war was tragic and useless and would result in decadence, if we did not accept a `Plan' for Europe.

Both seemed to become prisoners quite gladly, once the soldiers arrived, saying it was all over, no one would care for you, if you died fighting or not.

Girl, aged seventeen, Liverpool




WE ONLY HAD ONE BIG RAID on Chester, in daylight.   A German pilot came down by parachute.   My father, who was a special constable, went to arrest him.   A big crowd had gathered and were just watching him, not knowing what to do.   I think the pilot was quite glad to be arrested; he gave my father some chocolate.   My father gave it to me.   It was in a little round tin box.   I didn't eat it, because the Germans were rumoured to poison that kind of thing.   We've still got it ...   I think it was part of his survival ration.

Boy, aged seven, Chester




AS THE TIDES OF WAR swayed in our favour, trainloads of German POWs arrived at Northwich Station.   They were lined up four abreast and marched to Marbury Hall.   I and hundreds of other youths often went to watch their arrival, to hoot, jeer and shout at these our enemies, whole lines of unkempt men, with few possessions, unshaven, weary, red-eyed and in some cases ill-clad, these once-proud remnants of Hitler's armies, escorted by perhaps a dozen or so armed troops, as they marched the two or three miles to their camp.

Gradually people became used to these arrivals, and feelings towards them gradually tempered.   The Italian POWs were the first allowed out of camp to work on farms and in local factories, including ICI.

My Dad was in the lorry business.   We had two Germans to help him.   They had to eat outside in the barn.   My mother was always soft-hearted; she came in one day and said, `Have you seen what they've given those poor lads for their dinners? A scrap of dry bread and a scrap of sausage.   You can't expect a man to do a day's work on that!' Soon she was giving them their dinner.   In the end, we had them in for Sunday dinner.   One of them had been the only tiger-tamer in Europe before the war - he said there were plenty of lion-tamers but only one tigertamer.   He pulled open his shirt and showed me where a tiger had mauled him - a terrible scar from his neck all the way down to his belt.   Captain Something, he called himself, when he was a tiger-tamer.   We became great friends.   We still send Christmas cards at Christmas.

Boy, aged thirteen, Cheshire




SOME HUNDREDS of prisoners, not considered a high security risk, came to Marbury Hall.

I remember practising the piano one afternoon, and seeing a German POW, who was engaged in hedge-cutting for the local farmer, spending a long time on the piece immediately in front of our house.   When we got into conversation with him it turned

out he had been a cathedral organist in Germany and he was delighted to listen to anyone playing Bach, even a beginner like me.

He always lingered after that, when we played classical 78 records, with the window open.

A music teacher in Hartford and her husband invited home a German musician, August Wusterbecker, captured at Ostend.   By this time, Wusterbecker, who was not only a violinist but also a conductor, had formed a camp orchestra.   Instruments were loaned by local musicians.   Paul Voigt, a violin-maker and restorer, supplied a cello and one or two double-basses were actually made in the camp.   The problem of dress was overcome by blackout material being used to make a rough type of evening-dress.   My family were invited to concerts and it was a great treat for me, because travel to Manchester to hear the Halle [orchestra] wasn't possible due to petrol-rationing.

Boy, aged fourteen, Cheshire




WHEN I WENT TO HELP my friends in Cumberland with their harvest in 1944, I was outraged to see POWs helping as well.   No security; an army lorry with canvas top pulled up at the farm gate, the driver banged on his door and shouted `Out, you idle Wops' and three woebegone figures in brown leapt down from the tailgate and stood clutching bundles and' shivering in the morning air.

They were know as `Alfonso', `Luigi' and `That Useless Begger' none of which were their real names.   To the farmers, the first one you got was Alfonso and the second Luigi.   Not knowing a word of English, they had learnt to answer to these names, like pet dogs.   It helped us distinguish them.   `You Useless Begger' answered his name as cheerfully as the rest.

Alfonso and Luigi were very small - five foot four.   Swarthy,  hook-nosed, big-brown-eyed, they might have been twins, though they were not related.   They did everything together - never more than four feet apart.   The farmer had learnt not to separate them - they got miserable and their work went off.   Even in the heat of midday, they kept on their greatcoats and rolled-up balaclava helmets.

The farmer said they were good little workers, because they came from the North - car-workers in Turin before the war.   All the ones from the North were hard workers.   Those from the South were totally idle; no farmer wanted them, but they had to accept one Southerner for every two Northerners, Rationing!

That Useless Begger (always uttered with total contempt) was from the South.   Bigger - about five foot seven, slender, with a trim black moustache and arrogant air.   He'd stop work the moment the farmer's eye was off him; drift away to where the two land-girls were working like, as the farmer said `a tom-cat on heat'.   Very handsome, like Douglas Fairbanks, with a flashy smile and perfect white teeth.   But as far as the land-girls were concerned, he didn't exist.   He had learnt one English phrase - 'I can see the top of your bra!' The land-girl turned to him, broad Lancashire:

`An' I can see the top o' thy underpants an' all - and they're mucky!'

Wet lunchtimes, we sometimes shared the back of the army wagon.   Embarrassing.   The English farmhands discussing the Italians as if they weren't there - really intimately, as if they were cattle.   And the Italians discussed us similarly, in Italian.   Had there been an interpreter, there'd certainly have been a fight.

One evening I hitched a lift back to the village in the POW truck.   Getting off, over the tailgate, I caught myself awkwardly in the crotch.   As I lay doubled up in agony on the road, the truck drove off to enormous Italian cheering and laughter.   They seemed to think that for once they'd won a victory.   Then I realized how much they really hated us.

The German POW was different; a tall thin dignified scarecrow figure in Afrika Korps uniform that grew daily more like a farmhand's gear.   He fastened up his trousers with binder-twine, just like they did.   He had a little English, very slow, but all the farmhands listened to him patiently.   He had owned his own farm in Bavaria, before the war.   All he wanted was to get back to it.   He was allowed to do any job on the farm, and was allowed to go off on his own.   He had shown the farmhands several agricultural tricks they didn't know, and when they were stuck, they would send for him and ask his opinion.   He was very loving with animals, especially the dogs.   He wouldn't leave any broken thing unmended; spent one lunch-hour mending a drystone wall that had fallen down.   He was called `Fritz' like all German prisoners, and was content to answer to it.

He worked a fiddle with the farmer, who was charged so much an hour for his services.   But however hard Fritz worked, he only got five shillings from the POW camp people.   So when he'd worked eight hours, he and the farmer would sign his work-card as having worked only four.   Then the farmer would give Fritz a packet of fags instead

Once, when Fritz's camp-lorry broke down and didn't come for him in the evening, he walked back to camp alone.   He wished Hitler was dead, so he could go home to his farm.   He was the only one allowed inside the farmhouse, for a meal or a bath.

Boy, aged fifteen