A nice German in Woodville

I have been friends with Chris since we went to Woodville Junior School when we were seven years old, almost sixty years of friendship:

He recently told me the following story. It fits in so well with my previous two posts on this subject of Germans and/or Nazis in Woodville that I would like to include it here. I have kept to Chris’ original words:

“A few years ago my mother told me the story of an event during the Second World War.

One day she came home from work to find a German Prisoner of War in the living-room drinking tea.

My grandfather introduced him as “Gerard”. I imagine his name was actually Gerhardt. My grandfather had met Gerhardt walking up the railway line from Ensor’s brickyard where apparently he was working. (I was not aware that POWs could be required to work for what was to them the enemy but your blog entry confirms that they did.)

“Gerhardt was on his way to Woodville Tollgate to wait for the transport back to the camp, which I think was near Etwall, and given that he had almost two hours to wait, my grandfather invited him in for tea. My mother was horrified since she thought that it was probably illegal to have an enemy POW in the house  – fraternising with the enemy and all that.”

“It transpired that Gerhardt’s ‘plane had been shot down; he and most of the crew bailed out before it crashed. From what I gather, Gerhardt was a reluctant combatant and was quite relieved to be hors de combat. He obviously spoke English, since none of my family spoke German, so he must have been relatively well-educated.”

In any event, Gerhardt finished his tea and went on his way. They never saw him again.

I wish my mother had told me this story years ago because I would have tried to find Gerhardt and see what happened to him subsequently.”

It is by no means beyond the realms of possibility that Chris might have found Gerhardt. If he was born between 1910-1920, he may have lasted beyond the Year 2000. My own Dad was in the RAF in 1941, around twenty years old, and he lasted until 2003 when he died aged 80.

Ensor’s brickworks is long gone, but here is the Victorian nineteenth century map of the area :

The railway whose course Gerhardt was following runs from bottom left to top right and Ensor’s Pool Works is just to the south of the middle of the railway. Gerhardt would have been walking to the north east along the railway.

My friends and I all played in that extremely dangerous industrial area from, say 1962-1968, although by then the Pool Works had been demolished. We did play on the majestic slopes of “Milk Hill” though, which was an enormous pile of clay, made from, I presume, several million tons of the sticky stuff. You can see “Milk Hill” in the middle of the right hand side of the map. And we went down into the clay pit as well, which was even more dangerous, because of the lakes of wet clay with a deceptive thin dry crust on top. And if there was one “air shaft”, there would have been more. Still, just like many boys, and indeed fully grown men, (if there is such a thing) “Danger is my middle name”.

At the middle of the top of the map is “Jack i’ th’ Holes” which is a very strange name and, to me, has supernatural connotations, Jack very often referring to Satan himself.

On the map the seven  little  circles in the Pool Works are circular kilns. Here is a picture taken in the Pool Works showing some of them. When he left school, my Dad, Fred, aged then only thirteen or fourteen, worked as a junior in the offices at Ensor’s Pool Works. He is standing to the right of the man with the shovel. Notice how two men have climbed one of the kilns to be in the photograph :

In later years, Fred was not the only person to be disgusted that Freckleton, the son of the business’ owner, was to remain at home throughout the Second World War, hiding his cowardice behind the spurious claim that his job was a reserved occupation. It wasn’t.

Some time before the outbreak of the war, Fred was to witness an incident when a workman, for some unknown reason, had hit Freckleton hard in the face, and knocked him backwards into a puddle. Freckleton was drenched with muddy water and his magnificent suit was ruined.

Needless to say, the workman was dismissed on the spot, and, given the connections which existed between factory owners at this time and were renewed every time there was a Freemasons’ meeting, he was unable to find work anywhere in South Derbyshire ever again.

Incidentally, I did a little research about the location of the Prisoner of War camp, and found that there were a number in the area, along the side of the River Trent, where digging tunnels was more likely to result in death by drowning than freedom. Sites included the Weston Camp in Weston-on-Trent (top right), but the likeliest site for Gerhardt, in my opinion, was the section of Weston Camp in King’s Newton. Here’s the Orange Arrow, Herr Orange Pfeil, released early for good behaviour. Woodville is bottom left:

It’s funny looking at that map, which is perhaps ten miles square. I spent all of my life until I was eighteen in Woodville, yet I’ve never ever been to Twyford or Ingleby or King’s Newton or Newbold or Coleorton or Heath End. I was once on a bus going through Peggs Green, and it was so countrified that when an old lady that the driver expected to be at the bus stop wasn’t there to catch the bus, he went and knocked on her door to tell her to hurry up, or he’d have to leave her.

30 Comments

Filed under Bomber Command, History, Personal, Politics

30 responses to “A nice German in Woodville

  1. This is a really nice post John. It’s the nicer side of human nature (with perhaps a smattering of justice for nasty bosses) with a good German and a nice bus driver (how many would stop these days!). You don’t mention an escort for the POW, presumably he was trusted, like many were, to be out and about and return back to camp at the desired time. There was a much more relaxed approach to POWs here than in the homeland, and whilst it wasn’t all fun and games for them, many simply fitted in with us and were glad to be away from Hitlers henchmen and their evil clutches. Even the little arrow has been paroled, how nice in the current climate!

    • No, the POW didn’t have an escort and he was trusted to be there when his bus arrived. I think that Gerhardt was probably clever enough to realise that he stood virtually no chance of escape anyway, given that England is an island surrounded by freezing cold water.
      I can’t not mention “The one that got away” a 1950s film about Fritz von Werra, the only German prisoner ever to escape and make it back home. It’s a great film if you ever get a chance to see it.

  2. A terrific post. A lot of information shown in a pleasant hometown story.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, but it’s all down to my friend, Chris, really. As soon as he sent me his story I knew that it would soon be winging its way around the world!

  3. Great memories John. My dad told me similar stories about POWs in Leicestershire.
    Your dangerous play areas gave me a big memory nudge.

    • Yes, I think that the intelligent German POWs could see the way the wind was blowing and were happy to have a little job and then maybe, after the war, perhaps go home, perhaps go to the USA or even get a job keeping goal for Manchester City.
      And as for dangerous play areas, nobody ever got injured and we didn’t cause too much damage, except to that railway wagon, and it can’t have been a very important one or they wouldn’t have left it where they did.

      • You didn’t set fire to it did you?

        I remember once we borrowed a British Waterways dredging barge and took it for a ride up the Grand Union Canal. The man wasn’t very happy when he caught up with us and threatened to report us to the police. I had an uncomfortable couple of days waiting for a knock on the front door. It never came.

      • Somehow, the railway wagon was manhandled off the rails and then to the top of a sharpish incline down to the pond where somebody used to store water for cooling some industrial process or other. Gravity took its course with the wagon, and then another Physics lesson came in the form of a gigantic rainbow. But I must stress, your honour, that at no point was I personally involved in these events. Why, I wasn’t even there !

      • Sounds very much like you were an accomplice!

  4. A genuine feel good post. The bus driver is the best bit for me.

    • I’ve never experienced anything like that before or since. The old lady may have been the driver’s mother, of course, and that extra five minutes may not have done a great deal for any of the bus passengers desperate for a wee. But overall, yes, it was a very good deed.

      • Jeff Tupholme

        There still seems to be quite a strong tradition in Nottingham of saying “thank you” to the bus driver when you disembark, that I don’t think is common everywhere (certainly not in London, the other place I’ve travelled frequently by bus).

      • Many years ago, before the war, my grandfather travelled with the family for their annual holidays in Blackpool. When they arrived, he decided to walk against the crowd, and to go and see the train driver and the fireman. When he got there, they thought he had come to complain about something, but, quite the contrary, he thanked them both for an excellent journey. They were completely gobsmacked and explained that in the forty or fifty years of working on the railways that they had between them, he was the only person ever to say thank you or to say that they had done a good job. So well done, Nottingham, and let’s hope the habit spreads.

  5. Very nice, John! I have quite enjoyed all three of your “Germans in Woodville” posts, it is interesting to note the differences in the local lore and the actual accounts.

    • Yes, it certainly is. I watched a Simpsons episode where most of Homer’s memories came from TV programmes and that led me to thinking that perhaps my Dad had watched “Dad’s Army” one time too many. I was so pleased when my friend Chris wrote in to say that his mother had been in the crowd at the police station and could vouch for the arrogance of this particular Nazi. And thank goodness, too, for Gerhardt to redress the balance.

  6. Fascinating story, John! Chris’ comment that “Gerhardt was a reluctant combatant and was quite relieved to be hors de combat” can probably be applied to the majority of the soldiers on all sides of the frontlines. I also loved that bit about the bus driver in Peggs Green. Real small community spirit 🙂

    • Yes, I think in retrospect that it’s probably better to give the driver the benefit of the doubt and to salute his community spirit. At the time, though, I certainly wanted just to get back home, and I suspect that, as a young man in my late teens, I was perhaps a little lacking in patience.

  7. Joe M

    My father was Italian and served in the Italian Army during the war as allies of Germany. When Italy switched sides he was captured and sent to Germany in a labor camp. The Germans considered the Italians traitors for switching sides, and did not classify them as POW, which would have afforded them some protection under the Geneva Convention and the International Red Cross. They where classified as IMI ( Italian Military Internee ) to skirt those protections.

    As a nation of immigrants the USA treated the Germans and other POW from other countries pretty well for the most part as Is in your country. From what I read less than 1% tried to escape while in captivity in the USA, due to the freedom and conditions of how they where treated, and worked on farms, roads, factories as in your country.

  8. History is so important for all of us to remember. It is so nice to hear about the “humane” side of war, John. Thank you. I enjoyed this post!

    • I’m so glad, Amy. It is a nice interlude in a dreadful catalogue of dreadful things. It is nice to think, too, that the present day Germany contains tens of millions of people just like Gerhardt. Not interested in politics or war, enjoys a cup of tea and always likes to go home to the family.

  9. Chris Waller

    Thank you for presenting this anecdote to a wider readership. It helps to preserve yet another little anecdote against failing memory and mortality. I would like to think that at least one German went home with a favourable impression of the English.

    I didn’t know that your dad once worked for Ensor’s. That photograph reminds me of the Woodville that I can remember – remarkably unchanged even as late as 1960.

    Incidentally, on my last visit to Woodville to visit my mother (now aged 98 and in a care home) I had an hour or so to kill so walked around our old haunts. Woodville was as dreary as you described it in your earlier post. Even around mid-day the High Street was practically deserted. What used to be Renee’s fish and chip shop was closed – at lunch-time. The past, as they say, is a foreign country.

    • Thank you again for letting me use your story. You have a lovely way with words and that was reflected in the story of Gerhardt. You only have to read the comments to see how people enjoyed reading it.
      Woodville started to die when they began building estates of private houses here, there and everywhere, mostly for commuters to Burton, Derby,, Leicester and even Birmingham. That meant that a village of around 4,000 inhabitants was swamped by an influx of newcomers, most of whom were probably too stressed or too tired or both to even notice the place where they now lived.
      And because of that process, the history of the ordinary people of Woodville begins to be lost. Albert Taylor, Eric Boss, Reg Ashmore and any number of shops like Smart’s, Burton’s Stores, Leese’s and so on.
      Even now, I have forgotten the names of Mrs Taylor and Mrs Ashmore.

      • Chris Waller

        Mrs Ashmore’s name was Muriel Edith Ashmore, known as ‘Edie’.

      • Thanks very much for that. There is an Ashmore couple buried quite close to my Dad and Grandad in Gresley Cemetery, but they are George and Mary. I think that at the newsagent it was Reg Ashmore? The grave of Stuart Canner the runner is not too far away, and his Dad, Cliff, is in the same small area.

  10. Thank you for sharing a wonderful story and photos!.. it seems that in times of conflict and adversity, the media tends to concentrate on the ugly part of conflict and ignoring the humane part… 🙂

    Hope all is well in your part of the universe and life is all that you wish for it to be… 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it ! And you are absolutely right, of course. The good deeds are often forgotten when it is so much easier for a journalist just to relate one of a hundred bad deeds that happened that day.
      Here in Merrye Englande we are starting a national lockdown for four weeks tomorrow. The problem, of course, is numbers. An increasingly high percentage of patients can be saved, but not if a thousand arrive every day at every hospital.
      We are told to wear a mask, stay two metres away from everybody and if you have to be inside with someone, make sure you have a couple of windows providing some ventilation.

  11. So nice of the driver and I wonder what the German must have thought on being welcomed home for tea 🙂 Once when my parents were a few minutes late at the railway station, the driver saw them and waited for them to get in 🙂

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