The words that make up this post were initially written in more or less one go, but ended up far longer than anyone would to spend staring at a computer screen. So I’ve taken the material that initially went into the post and broken it into several pieces. Each one deals with some different bits of what I’ve learned about Slovenia and Austria on my trip. This post dips into some of what I’ve learned (and already knew) about Geoff’s experience of life as a POW in the 1940s.
Both Carinthia and Yugoslavia suffered in WW2. I’ve always found it interesting that Geoff’s experience, was very different – not freedom, to be sure, and not as he would have wished it, but in the circumstances, and compared to other places, pretty tolerable. This surprised me because before I really started considering it, I had a notion that captivity under the Nazis would be all hardship.
Geoff spent most of his time from 1941 to 1945 in a camp at Waidmansdorff, which itself was a branch of the much larger Stalag XVIIIa at Wolfsberg, a smaller town that nowadays is about an hour’s drive away to the east. (Ian Brown’s website provides a much more exhaustive history of this and other camps). Geoff wrote letters home from the camp, and was able to receive other letters from his family, as well as Red Cross parcels – a lifeline considering the creeping advance of food shortages in Germany. His letters home sometimes mention the unreliability of the post, and his tiny handwriting on the paper the POWs were given by the Germans suggests that he had to express himself economically and with the censor in mind. But he was able to be in touch, and able to ask his family to send items like clothing and the textbooks that he studied from.
Though Carinthia was pretty quiet in terms of fighting, it was busy with troop movements to and from Yugoslavia, and Klagenfurt (especially its railway) was increasingly subject to bombing raids by the Allies. Geoff’s letters don’t contain any details of what was happening in Yugoslavia or about the bombing, though he certainly would have been aware of them. POWs had furtive contact with civilians of different nationalities around the camp and in Klagenfurt, and he makes cryptic reference to things like the D-Day landings, which prompted ‘elation’ in the camp within days of ‘the recent news’ arriving. A lot else of what I know about his captivity comes from stories I heard growing up, and (mainly) from the interviews that my mum and I recorded towards the end of his life. The quotes below come from these transcripts, except where I have indicated the date of a letter.
Your mental image of a POW camp – if you have one at all – is probably rather like mine was when I first started taking an interest in all of this: intelligent and underoccupied men with toothbrush moustaches and an unquenchable desire to escape, sneaking dirt out from the tunnel their mates are digging and hiding it somewhere, away from the vigilant gaze of the camp guards in their towers along the barbed wire perimeter. If you have this image you probably got it from a film like The Great Escape. Or you might think that a POW camp was more like the ones at the Loibl Pass, in which case you may be thinking of Japanese POW camps, or perhaps be thinking that all the camps (lager, in German) in the Nazi universe amounted to the same thing.
If Geoff had been a Red Army prisoner then his experience would likely have featured starvation and ghastly treatment up to and including murder. But in fact – and this is one of the oddities of the Nazis that I am grateful for but will never completely understand – British POWs were treated really quite well, under the circumstances. They were not living in the Ritz, and life certainly had its hardships. Nor were they free men. But they had their mail, the camps they were in were occasionally inspected by the Red Cross, and they received Red Cross parcels containing tinned fruit, tobacco, occasionally chocolate, and other things that supplemented their diet, and which seems regularly to have been traded with local people. A working system of communication between the prisoners and the camp hierarchy was in place: the men in the camp elected a vertrauensmann, or ‘confidence man’ – apparently the term comes from German trade unions, a sort of shop steward, in whom both the prisoners and the guards trusted. Geoff was chosen as the camp clerk, who helped the vertrauensman with administrative matters. He told me that the main reason for this was that he was more literate than most of the other prisoners. Geoff described the responsibilities involved:
“Oh not a great deal … sort of getting their post, seeing where it was, who was there, if there was trouble I would write home if somebody wasn’t getting any mail. Sometimes the reason they didn’t get any mail was because there was too large a pile at the place they were taking it to. A whole lot of odd things to do with writing to the main camp [this was Wolfsberg] to say that we hadn’t enough bandages, or that kind of thing.”
The other oddity of this camp compared with film portrayals was work. Again, there was a big difference between the work POWs were doing and the arbeit macht frei of other far more notorious camps. Here, the Germans followed the Geneva Conventions: officers were kept in entirely separate camps (Offlags, rather than Stalags) and did not work at all; but regular soldiers were sent out of the camp to do non-war related work in the local area. Local businesses could apply to the camp authorities to ask for POWs to be made available as free labour, and so while Geoff spent much of his time in the camp as the clerk, most of the others were out and about every day. Geoff said that at first when they were in the nearby towns, there was the occasional fist shaken at them as ‘the enemy’, but before long their presence was accepted.
What kind of work were they doing?
“At the beginning almost entirely work which you might say here was work for the local authority. Perhaps the railways, perhaps unloading coal, say at the railway stations perhaps, in time … the first job I ever had there was dredging a river; there were about 30 of us dredging this river. All that might be deemed to be minor commercial stuff that you would have at home. Towards the end [of the war] a lot of it was repairs to stuff that had been bombed, or digging people out of buildings that had been bombed … [At night] we were locked in – depending upon the time of year – we were locked in the huts, and that was universal, always … [but] we would be got up at say 7, have breakfast, and at about 8 o’clock go out to work. If it was to assist something that had transport, then they would come to the camp and get you to the place they wanted you to work by means of their transport. Sometimes you walked, but it just depended. I think we took [food] out with us like sandwiches. Quite often what they did do, particularly when outside [the camp], let’s say a brick factory, you would say: ‘What do you want us to do?’ And they would say, ‘Well, we’ve got two lorries there that are full of bricks and we want them unloaded.’ And what they would do – it was very much something that you arranged with them – you would say to them, ‘Well, if we have done this at such and such a time can we then go home?’ And if they agreed, they would say, ‘yes, fine’. They would let you know what they wanted once you had confidence in them and they had it in you and you would get work done.”
Initially this surprised me – it is positively civilised compared to the experience of those at Loibl, say. But when you think that many of the people involved – POWs and locals – involved would have had no real sympathy for the Nazis, and instead wanted to try and get on with life as normally as possible, it makes a lot of sense. Even then, there is something quite counterintuitive about these wartime workers negotiating with their bosses for an early finish. Sometimes the POWs would give the guards the slip and try to escape – one was Geoff’s Kiwi friend Lloyd Sutherland – but as far as I can tell they would be captured again within a few days and then taken to another camp for escapees, without work and where escape was made harder and conditions tougher. And so, with the incentive of relative freedom, this system seems to have tended towards stability.
There are one or two stories that Geoff told time and again when I was growing up, which usually had to do with the POWs trying to get better food:
“One did the things that were seasonal and one did it usually for the organisations in the town that dealt with it. If it was fish, you would deal in fish and if it was fruit you had the fruit at the time of the fruit being ripened. On this occasion it was I think a family farm somewhere outside the town which dealt in apples – which was a greengrocer. And on this particular occasion we went out to, oh, I don’t know where it was, but we had to load up these apples and pack them and put them away. And we were eating apples as if there was no tomorrow, and [at the end of the day] the old lady who was in charge of us – nominally in charge of us – said that we had worked very well and she polished half a dozen apples on her apron, and gave us one each. And we all said ‘thank you’.”
Geoff used to say this act of kindness made everyone feel rather guilty. This again, I think, testifies to the relative normality of this peace-within-a-war.
The other concerns a time where the prisoners were unloading a train full of fish:
“I think one thing about [the camp] was it introduced nearly all of us to stealing what we could get. Nobody did anything about it, unless it was something that was dangerous to them. I mean, food was anybody’s for the taking, and on this occasion it was fish. Fish was a bit unusual because we were a long way away from the sea or any chances of getting it, and on this occasion I think some had come in from North Germany or somewhere. And [the POWs returning to the camp] had so much fish stuffed down their trousers at the gate, and the guards couldn’t let them go through with it. And I think there was something like 20 or 30 kilos of fish that they had to give up. I think even then they managed to get a bit through.
The Stalag system contained many different nationals including Soviet soldiers, who were held in far harsher conditions, but at Weidmannsdorf most were English, Scottish, New Zealanders and Australians. To the end of his life Geoff spoke of how he (a wry, ironic Englishman) loved the way the Aussies in the camp expressed themselves. He took such a delight in being called ‘Cobber’ that it stuck as his nickname. (I can well imagine this; when he found something amusing he used to get the kind of giggles that neither he nor others could resist). The Aussies took the mickey out of him when they found out that he and his family lived in Tooting, which to them meant ‘farting’. At the end of the war very many of the prisoners had photos taken of them with their friends – as souvenirs – scribbling their names and a contact address on the back. One Aussie friend left the following greeting to Geoff next to his mother’s Queensland address: ‘Cobber is the biggest bludger this side of rabbit-proof!’
In one letter written shortly before his 24th birthday in December 1943, he shared two more of his favourites:
“There is an Australian phrase that just about covers Ted’s luck. If anyone is exceptionally lucky he is told that ‘If you fell into a s—house you’d come up smelling of violets’. Crude but effective. Surprised to hear that Ray is growing a moustache. I tried to about 2 years ago but it made me look like the north end of a south going rhino so I took it off.”
(Geoff had a moustache for all the time I knew him!)
There is an interesting little side-note on the subject of photos. Many of them carry the following words in Gothic script on the back: Atelier Foto Tollinger, Alter Platz 31, Klagenfurt. Paul, the historian who showed me around Klagenfurt, wondered out loud whether the business was still there. Google revealed that it was, and so I wrote an email to the address on their website, and received one back from the photographer, Brigitte Rumpf. Her mother’s first husband Walter Tollinger owned the business with his brother Hans; her mother Berta helped with the business. Walter was executed for his membership of the Resistance in December 1944, after a remark he made about Hitler was overheard by a soldier and reported to the Gestapo. Normality had its limits. Berta remarried, this time to Brigitte’s father. And Brigitte still runs the family business! I went to visit her in Klagenfurt, and was astonished to find that the studio is still at the same address, with Walter Tollinger’s Meisterbrief certificate still on display.
The studio itself is also pretty much unchanged, and so unexpectedly I found myself looking through Geoff’s photos with Birgitte in the very studio where his goodbye portraits were probably taken, and where Walter and Hans would come back from photographing events and happenings in the camp to develop the photos. Brigitte was quite surprised by my visit, needless to say, and she doesn’t know how the prisoners paid for the photos (my guess is by trading their Red Cross cigarettes!)
Many of the funniest parts of Geoff’s letters are about drinking. The prisoners managed to make crude hooch, as well, by cooking fruit and potato peelings on the wood-burning stoves they had in their huts:
“There was nothing to stop you sort of brewing up on these stoves. Among the stuff we sometimes had were prunes, for example, and perhaps some dried apricots and that kind of thing, and potatoes. It was really potent. [Was it nice?] No, awful. It was the only stuff I have ever seen that … made anybody lie face down in the snow, singing….”
The guards assigned to the camp were generally men too old for the Front – and for the prisoners to have mixed with the local population, they must have been willing to turn a blind eye, and open to negotiation. Geoff also felt that many of the Austrians who comprised the guards were not really committed to Nazism or the war – as he once put it, Austrians realised after Russia had been invaded ‘what a terrible pickle they had got themselves into’ and were not dyed-in-the-wool Nazis. One guard he used to mention sometimes was less easy-going, at least on matters of grammar; disliking a POW’s misuse of the familiar ‘du’ form of address, he became increasingly irritated and screamed at him, ‘NICHT du!’ The men were careful to address him using the more formal ‘sie’ thereafter. Many of the prisoners learned some German. And Ida, Geoff’s Slovenian friend who was also Breda’s mother, didn’t speak English, so Geoff’s and her friendship would also have been conducted in German.
I imagine there would have been rules against POWs mixing with civilian workers, but these must have been lax enough for Geoff to make friends with Ida (and for Ida and Gilbert Conyard to conduct their relationship). They were certainly lax enough that the British soldiers were sometimes able to slip food to other prisoners who were being kept in worse conditions than they were. Another of Geoff’s letters amusedly notes that the guards were not always made of stern stuff:
“There was rather an amusing incident at work last week. A civilian smashed his fingers with a sledgehammer. We had all sympathy with him, but the point was that we had to fan the guard and bring him water to stop him from fainting.”
Some of Geoff’s photos show the damage done to the camp by mistaken American bombing that killed nine people. This incident of ‘friendly fire’ was about the closest shave Geoff had during the entire war – a bomb fell right onto the spot where his bed was, and the huts where he and the others were living were reduced, as the photos show, to matchwood.
Some of the photos document some of the ways the POWs used to keep themselves entertained. There are photos of plays, with full stage sets and costumes, which a couple of Geoff’s letters refer to.
There were also games of tennis on a court that the prisoners built for themselves (and for which they managed to buy, beg, borrow or steal rackets – this is mentioned in one of the reports by the Red Cross inspectors as being something that was agreed after their visit between the prisoners and the camp authorities). In 1944 the POWs organised ‘Empire Games’, in which the different nationalities in the camp competed in athletics, tug-of-war, tennis, and football (in which one team seems to have been playing in drag).
This next letter is a perfect example of the POWs’ constant battle against boredom, their love of sport, and of Geoff’s wry, ironic take on life, a take that I recognise immediately, and thrill to, when I read his words. This was written to his sister, Winifred:
“23rd January 44
My dear Win
Many thanks for your letter of Dec 2nd and all the news. A couple of days afterwards I received Mum’s Oct clothing parcel – everything was intact and the BRCS [British Red Cross Society] had bunged some more chocolate in so everything is going swimmingly. I’m glad to hear that you will be keeping yourself amused. Is it serious this time or merely an ‘attachment’, as you put it? I’ve been really enjoying myself this last week or two. It’s freezing hard and some bright spark said ‘Why not build an ice rink?’ Since then Mahomet has gone to the mountain with a vengeance. We scrape and spray it every night and have managed to procure and manufacture skates. They’re a murderous collection of footgear, but no one’s fingers have been chopped off yet. At which end of the City are you now? We got our first consignment of NZ food parcels the other day and they’ve some good stuff in them – I got some tinned lamb’s tongue this week. I’m still slavering in anticipation but it’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Give my regards to all at home and thank them for the parcel. How’s Alf Babister going these days? Love Geoff”
In the light of the entertainments and the way in which all the men seem to have gone to immense lengths both to give themselves plenty to do and to keep their minds off home, it’s perhaps more surprising that Geoff spent nearly a year, if the letters are anything to go by, working out what he would need to achieve in order to take the First MB medical exams when he came back to Britain after the war. There are several letters to his sister, Win, who helped him to communicate with the Red Cross, who sent the books and advice on what to study. In one of the interviews we did with him, he said that the other prisoners thought he was ‘doolally’ for spending so much of his time studying, which he mostly seems to have made time for by doing his work as the camp clerk as quickly as possible, and then sitting in the mess hut with his books, a pencil and paper. On such was his later medical career founded.
I can’t tell from the letters when or how Geoff met Ida, who is not mentioned in any of them. There were a variety of different workers at Klagenfurt. Adjoining his camp, there was another camp containing civilian forced labourers from around Europe; elsewhere in the town (Paul has not been able to find where) there were also other foreign workers who had made their way there voluntarily. Ida was one of these. The lack of references to Ida or other civilian friends is almost certainly because the censor would have read all of them; POWs and the civilian workers were not allowed to mix, though like most things in the camp, it is pretty clear that everyone could get away with a lot if they wished to. Breda has told me that Ida would stop in at the bakers’ in Domžale during her occasional trips home, and buy bread to give to Geoff and the other prisoners. It seems likely that information and news, incomplete though it might be, would have been swapped along with food, and though no one had a clear picture, Geoff would have been aware of what was happening in Yugoslavia and elsewhere – many of the letters refer to rumours, though he never says what they are.
One of the saddest exchanges is Geoff repeatedly asking whether family members can, in their next letter, try to find a way of revealing where his brother Raymond had been killed, in Italy in November 1943. For them to say clearly where Raymond died would mean the letter being censored, and so Geoff spent months trying to confirm what (it eventually turned out) he had already guessed through rumour – that Raymond died at Monte Cassino. The first such request was in March 1944:
“Dearest Mum and Dad, I have just received yours and Win’s letters of Jan 9th, 28th, 31st and Feb 15th, with your sad news in them. I keep trying to think of home without him, and of how much both of you will miss him. Do you remember how he used to put on my uniform when I came home on leave? Perhaps it’s as well that we can’t see ahead of us. The only thing that we can hope is that he received medical attention quickly and thus did not feel too much, and that he was with someone he knew at the end.”
And then in May to Winifred:
“I’m glad you know where Ray is buried – do you think you could let me know the first letter or two of the place, since I have a very fair idea approximately where he was killed.”
And in June, congratulating her on getting engaged:
“Wouldn’t Ray have been delighted at the news – don’t forget to try and let me know where he lies when you write.”
And in August, to his parents:
“Win says that she can’t let me know where Ray is buried, but could you just put the name of the town in a letter – I’ll know what it means.”
Amid all the relative normality that we see there was in the rest of the camp, this is one of the reminders that things were not all easy. Geoff’s letters refer to his declining weight, as well; food supplies were scarce by the end of the war, and as the German state collapsed so must its ability to run a postal system for Red Cross parcels. But it’s clear from his letters that he had a good idea of what was happening in the wider war. He told me that the POWs would try to build home-made radios, and he sometimes hints in letters home at things he knows about that would not get past the censors.
British occupation forces in Vienna – presumably not such bloody lovely tank country as Carinthia. Photo © Imperial War Museum, used by kind permission of their IWM Non-Commercial Licence. Click on the photo for more info.
After his liberation in May 1945 Geoff was put to work for a short time by the British, who were now the occupying power. This did not last long; he fell ill in June 1945 with suspected diphtheria, and was flown to Naples, where he was then given a clean bill of health and, eventually, put on a convoy home. Ida would have gone back to Slovenia already, having given birth to Breda earlier in February of that year. One particular recollection of Geoff’s from this period stuck out for Paul. It says a lot about the military mindset of the occupying British forces, who had been at war for years, and also about how Geoff, after years in captivity, did not share it:
“Somebody said something once that I have always remembered. There we were in the south of Austria, the war had just ended, and on this particular day we were going from places in southern Austria – from small town to small town – making sure that the communications between the small towns were OK and the young ladies who had been manning them hadn’t gone away. And I was with a Signals Major and his driver, and we were in a jeep, and we came to a place looking across a sunlit valley and a lake, and it looked lovely: the blossom out in May. And the Major looked at it. I always remember what he said: ‘What bloody lovely tank country!’ And that was that.”
If Geoff wasn’t in the soldierly mindset after four years at Weidmannsdorf, it wasn’t perhaps all that surprising.
I owe many thanks to Paul Angerer for showing me around Carinthia and for helping me to the basic understanding I have of the history described in these posts, as well as for allowing me to use the photos of the barracks, which have formed part of his extensive research on Carinthia’s wartime history. His knowledge of this period exceeds mine infinitely and any errors of fact or interpretation in this post are mine, not his.
If you’re reading this and the other posts in the series, and had a relative who was in Waidmansdorff with Geoff, I’d love to hear from you. I have better quality copies of these and many other photos and would be willing to share them – so please get in touch using the ‘contact’ page on this site, or by linking to my social media profiles on the homepage.