Love and barbed wire

Clockwise from top left: The young George Pepperell in uniform. George Pepperell composes a...
Clockwise from top left: The young George Pepperell in uniform. George Pepperell composes a letter to his beloved, in this composite image sent home to Elsie Newman. Mr and Mrs Pepperell out together years later. George Pepperell and Elsie Newman cut...
Darling, don't wait. For those Allied soldiers who were captured early in World War 2, one of the few freedoms they had behind the barbed wire of a Nazi prison camp was the freedom to release their beloved from bonds of affection. Pam Jones recalls her uncle's war years.

When George Pepperell left New Zealand's shores in 1940 to help defeat the Germans he probably never imagined he'd spend nearly four years living under their thumb.

But, after a year training at Burnham Military Camp and in Egypt, he found himself in Crete and "in the bag", as they called it, a prisoner of war on a bitter journey to the "hell camp" in Germany called Stalag VIIIB.

Captured after the Battle of Crete, George and thousands of other Allied prisoners suffered months of maltreatment and uncertainty - herded into makeshift camps, having to cope with hunger and lack of hygiene, and finally travelling by cattle truck to POW camps all over Europe.

Only then were they recognised as official prisoners of war and given numbers. Information about their capture and location was sent to next of kin in their home country.

The news would have been bitter-sweet for his family in Rahotu, in south Taranaki, who had already received a telegram in May 1941 listing George as missing in action, whereabouts unknown.

And, back in Middlemarch, Otago, George's girlfriend Elsie Newman had three of her letters to her sweetheart returned to her, marked, "Missing, return to sender".

It took five months for a second telegram to arrive: George was no longer missing, but at Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, Germany - POW number 7963.

George Pep, as his friends knew him, had already written many letters to his family, and the woman he intended to marry. It was while he was training at Burnham they announced their engagement.

On a ship to the Middle East, he killed time socking it out in bouts of army boxing, eventually winning a cup as ship champ, and in Egypt he remained in good spirits before being sent to Crete.

But now came nearly four years of postcards and lettercards, censored by the guards of Nazi Germany. Sometimes, George's writing was positive and showed characteristic backbone and humour. Other times, his words were written in despair.

Elsie and George, my mother's late aunty and uncle, had met while she was working at Kawarau Station, near Cromwell, and he was working around Bannockburn. That was before their old-fashioned Central Otago courtship was interrupted by a call-up to war.

It's not known what happened to the letters Elsie wrote to her tall, rugged beloved during the time he was away. But, she kept the letters he wrote back to her in a marbled cardboard box, along with other mementoes and snapshots of what the war meant to the country boy turned soldier and his betrothed.

There were maps of POW camp locations around Europe and instructions on how to send parcels to prisoners, a plastic bag of black armbands and photos of "old cobbers", a faded paybook with a picture of a family member killed during the war pasted inside.

Taking up to six months to arrive in Middlemarch, his letters are a glimpse into what he experienced as a captive soldier and the loss he and Elsie suffered as a couple.

I will not be much good for anything by the time I get out of this, so just forget me, have a good time. George

He wrote this line in the first short postcard Elsie received from Stalag VIIIB, written on November 30, 1941.

As the winter ended and mail and parcels started coming through, his spirits seemed to rise, despite reality sinking in.

12 July 1942
My dearest Elsie,
Here I am again, happy and fit as ever.
I am in good health at present and I hope you are the same. I haven't had any letters from any of you for over nine weeks, it is hard to see the New Zealand boys getting mail and me not getting any, but they will come up some time, I haven't had the parcel from home yet, all the boys here have had two from home.

I had cigarettes sent from New Zealand and one clothing parcel from the New Zealand house in England. Well, darling, I have written you some letters that are not so pleasant, but I still love you no matter what happens, but it is the way, darling.

I do not expect you to wait for me, it has been a long time for any girl to wait, but if things go right and you are still writing when I get back we will be married within two months or so, get things ready if you are waiting.

Love George forever.

His letters show fluctuating spirits, sometimes upbeat when food, activities and letters were plentiful, other times struggling with the boredom and uncertainty.

22 November 1942
I received three letters from you the other day, and I was very pleased to hear from you. You do not seem to be getting my letters, I am writing to you more than anyone, I only get two of these lettercards and four postcards a month, and I have a lot of folks to write to, but I never forget you, you are always in my thoughts, sometimes I think that you will be married when I get back, it is too much to ask any girl to wait for me.

It looks like that it will be 1945 before I get back and I will be very lucky if I am back by then, so I think it is best for you to forget me till I come back, I know it will be hard but I cannot see my way clear to hold all our promises that we made when I left home.

I am in the best of health at present and hope to keep it till I get out of this damn hole, it is very cold here, we have had some snow and some more coming down. I must close, hoping you will see through this on the bright side.

Yours forever, George.

Other letters discussed "the good times when we were in old Bannockburn" and victories in camp, through to lost friends and changes for POWs. There were plenty of mixed emotions.

25 July 1943
My dearest Elsie,
I am doing well, I am 10 stone 9 pounds, so I have lost a bit of weight. The weather here is very good. I had another fight last week and had a win so I am still great guns yet, though I have changed a lot.

I do not know whether it is for the good or bad, but I will have to let you do the judging. I have lost all my New Zealand pals, they all left here and I was left behind, but I have a very good pal here, a boy from Kent, England, we have been together for over 18 months. Well I must close, hoping to see you in eight months.

Yours till I get back and then, love George.

Several months in and of hospital saw more despondence, and one last, honest letter.

18 July 1944
My dearest Elsie,Things have changed a lot lately, we all used to say that we would like to see our planes come over, but now that they do come over here, we pray for them to stay away, they have dropped a few bombs quite close to us.

If they come over very much a lot of the boys will be going off their heads. We cannot stand too much of that as we are. They know that this place for miles around has a lot of POWs working, the first raid they made killed four boys. If they keep this up a lot of us will not see home.

Yours forever, George.

His letters ended after that. There were various possible reasons why. Most prisoners from Lamsdorf (now called Stalag 344) were sent on the infamous "death marches".

About 30,000 Allied POWs were force-marched across Poland and Germany in appalling winter conditions, from January to April 1945, as the Soviet army advanced on Poland and the Nazis decided to evacuate camps to prevent the liberation of POWs by the Russians. Many died.

Those who didn't march still ended the war half-starved after Nazi orders to destroy all POW tinned food were ruthlessly obeyed in September 1944. The resulting semi-starvation did not end until the end of the war. Many POWs finished the war at half their pre-war weight.

We don't know which group George was in, but later he told me one small detail about his final day as a prisoner, when old pieces of bread were thrown over a wall to desperate soldiers.

With eyes of fire he could still remember tearing into the stale, rock-hard food.

"They tasted like cake," he said.

Six foot tall and usually as strong as an ox, George ended his time as a POW weighing six and a-half stone.

News of George's freedom was sent from England to Elsie and his family on April 23, 1945. His certificate of discharge tells of service in New Zealand of 196 days and out of New Zealand, five years and 10 days. Total: five years and 206 days.

Nearly 65 years later, a 1954 New Zealand Government official POW history book, written by W. Wynne Mason, provides sobering insights into the experience of all those who were POWs.

A foreword to the book, by H. K. Kippenberger, editor-in-chief, New Zealand War Histories, sums up the hopelessness and futility POWs must have felt during their captivity by recording the words one man wrote in a report following his release.

"I had thought of death or wounds, but never of surrender, yet there it was."

Like so many other returned servicemen, George barely spoke of his time away once back in rural Otago. After marrying his devoted fiancee at Rahotu on October 24, 1945, he settled in Middlemarch and with Elsie forged a happy life.

There were no children but they were especially close to their extended family and embraced by those in the wider community.

A keen sportsman, horseman and boxing coach, George never asked for any recognition of the sacrifices he made during the war. He died in 1993 aged 76.

But in his tribute Kippenberger recognises the fortitude of all those, like him, who fought the enemy during World War 2, whether on battlefields or behind barbed wire.

"I saw those who came out of Germany after the war ended. They were thin and strained, but they carried themselves as soldiers and as men who knew that they had acquitted themselves as men in a long and bitter ordeal. I was proud that I had served with them in the hard years."

As cold as the welcome

Stalag VIIIB was at Lamsdorf, Germany, near the Polish border. In 1939, it housed Polish prisoners from the German September 1939 offensive.

Altogether, more than 300,000 Allied and Soviet prisoners passed through the camp during World War 2.

Between 40,000-100,000 prisoners died, most of whom are buried in mass graves in the nearby village of Klucznik.

The town of Lamsdorf is now known as Lambinowice and is in the southwest of Poland. It has a large monument devoted to victims of the camp and a Central Prisoner of War Museum.

History books and websites give grim details about camp conditions:

• On arrival in Germany in the autumn of 1941, all POWs from Greece were deloused by the Germans.

• Men first bathed in troughs, later in a bath-house that in winter had a thick coating of ice on the floor. Each man had a shower every 10 days.

• Latrines were in concrete buildings built over deep pits emptied by pumping into horse-drawn tanks. Lids covered most of the 40 holes to keep rats from climbing out, but were sometimes stolen by men for firewood.

• Stoves inside barracks were used for heating and cooking, but coal was scarce and the cold bitter.

In winter there was ice an inch thick inside windows, icicles hanging from roofs and snow nearly a metre thick outside.

Up to 180 men slept in each dimly-lit barrack on wooden bunks. In some barracks, men burned the bunks for fuel and slept on the concrete floor.

• Food rations were mostly adequate, due mostly to British Red Cross parcels. Many soldiers said they owed their survival to that support by the Red Cross.

• Blankets were in short supply, but clothing was for the most part plentiful, again due to the efforts of the Red Cross, as well as parcels from home.

In fact, many prisoners asked their family to send no more clothing, sometimes passing surplus garments to other POWs and instead asking for parcels from home of chocolate, razor blades, toothpaste and other toilet articles.

Cigarettes became currency.

• Many prisoners worked outside the camp on farms, in mines and factories, shovelling snow and laying railway tracks.

Inside camp, many POWs said they were treated well and took part in activities such as sporting events, boxing tournaments and gardening competitions, studying, playing instruments and even baking.

• Although Red Cross inspections declared conditions at Stalag VIIIB as indescribably miserable, dirty, depressing and wretched, hospital facilities at the camp were excellent.

• Overcrowding worsened camp conditions and in 1943 the Lamsdorf camp was split up, with many of the prisoners transferred to new base camps.

The Lamsdorf base camp was renamed Stalag 344 but overcrowding continued, with 8000 men in the main camp in February 1944.

The Soviet army reached the camp on March 17, 1945, and it was later used by the Soviets to house Germans, both POWs and civilians.


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