The POWs all looked at one another. With most of them being Brits, there was no great rush to take the first straw, just lots of looking to the side and cries of, “After you, mate.”
The first few POWs to try their luck either sighed or shrugged their shoulders as they each emerged holding a short straw. Then it was the turn of ‘Polish Pete’, the lone Pole amidst all of the native English speakers. As he drew the first of the long straws, he simply nodded, his face hard to read.
“Well done, Pete,” said the RSM. “You’ll be missed but, with your knowledge of the local area and command of all the local languages, you’ll be a big help in getting the others out with you.”
“Stand over here, can you?”
Piotr just nodded and strided over to the side of the room. The RSM started to scowl at not receiving a salute from the Pole, but then remembered that ‘Pete’ was actually a Captain and so officially out-ranked him.
A couple more short straws and then it was time for “Grumpy Bob” – one of the many Canucks to go. He drew the second of the long straws.
“Probably just signed my death warrant,” he moaned.
The RSM sighed. “Over there with Pete, if you would.”
Bob threw the RSM a salute and went to join the Polak.
A few more failures, and then it was the turn of Lodd Yegor, “The Beast of Belgrade” to take his turn.
“Да!” exclaimed the huge Serb as he produced a long straw.
Piotr showed no reaction. Grumpy Bob uttered a silent curse under his breath, while several of those who had already had their turn grinned that the freak would soon be on his way. They could never figure out why the Commie bastard was in their camp anyway – shouldn’t he have been in the the other camp with the rest of the Russkie animals?
Lodd threw the RSM his best imitation of a salute as he stomped to join the others, sending the floorboards of the hut shaking as he went.
Next in line was one of the Yanks, Terry Mallory, one of the more recent arrivals at Stalag VIII-B compared to the majority of the POWs who had been in here since the disaster of the BEF in France in 1940. There were a few groans as he too pulled out a long straw and gripes that it should be one of the old-timers going in his place. He saluted and joined the others.
Short straw after short straw was drawn until there were just a handful of men remaining. Then it was “Taffy” Williams turn. He received the penultimate straw.
The RSM tried not to smile. “Nice that they others will have a fellow Welshman to keep them in line,” he said. “Just remember to send us a postcard when you’re back in the valley.”
Taffy threw the Welsh Guards’ Senior NCO a salute and went to join the others.
More POWs went and returned with just short straws until there were just two POWs remaining – both of them Aussies – Alec Gray an artilleryman who was captured at El Alamein – and the Padre, Bruce Gibson.
Alec went first, but drew the last of the short straws, to his disappointment. The RSM opened his hand revealing the last of the long straws to the Chaplain.
Bruce looked torn as he saw that he was to be the last of the six to make the latest escape attempt. He considered asking the RSM to give it to Alec instead but then sighed:
“If it is God’s will that I will return to active service, then it shall be so,” he said.
Although he was technically a superior to the RSM, Bruce was not one to stand on ceremony, so saluted the RSM before joining the others.
The RSM addressed the others. “Sorry lads, that’s the luck of the draw. Better luck next time, boyyos.”
“Would everyone who has not been chosen and who is not part of the Escape Committee please now leave the room?”
The majority of POWs saluted the RSM and then shuffled away, moaning quietly to themselves, until there was just the RSM, the chosen six, and a handful of other men left in the room.
“Congratulations all of you,” the RSM said. “Please take seats, if you can find any.”
The six all looked around and sat on the bottom bunks around them, apart from Lodd who preferred to lean against the wooden wall rather than to try squeeze his bulk into the confined space.
“So, lads, you have a major decision to make – one that will probably be the determining factor in whether your escape is a success or a failure.”
“One of the options is to try and make an escape from the Stalag itself. The advantages is that you have all of the facilities of the Escape Committee here to assist you. We can provide you with detailed maps of the local areas and the places to avoid, civilian clothing, tools, travel permits, currency and forged papers. The downside, as I am sure that you are all too aware, is that here is no holiday camp – it’s going to be ruddy hard to get away from here.”
“The second option is to get assigned to a working party. The downside to this is that you aren’t going to know where you will be going or what you will be doing when you get there. You could be down a pit and under heavy guard; you could be assigned to an agricultural job halfway to a neutral territory with just one half-blind, half-lame guard to try and keep you in line. Normally though, security is a lot more lax on these working parties. However, escaping your guard on one of these working parties will be the easy part. You’ll be on your own after that and we can’t be of any more assistance. You’ll need to make your own plans on where to go and how to get there once only once you are in position.”
He paused for effect.
“So any questions or thoughts at this stage? We’ll give you all of the information that we have, but that’s not a lot about the working camps as they are opening new ones all the time.”
“If you have no questions, then what is it to be?”
“Is there ‘any arm in just joining a work party anyway?" Taffy asks the others. “That’s give us an option even if we don’t take it up, surely?”
“Youse ‘tinks we’re gonna get a cush assignment, Limey?" Terry immediately replies. "Let’s just bust outta ‘dis joint. I joined up ta kill Hitler’s bums, so let’s get goin.”
“No PRIVATE," Taffy replies with the emphasis on the Yank’s lower rank. "I mean: if we get an assignment which does give us a better escape opportunity, we might then have the choice of two options. As to killing Germans, that’s all very well once we’re back home and in the Fight. Goin’ Mad and killing Germans during the escape is just going to mean reprisals for the lads left back here at the camp. Or don’t you give a damn about them?”
“I do agree with Taffy, ’ere, mates,” Padre Bruce chimes in. “We should definitely err on the side of caution rather than simply agree to the first half-baked plan that any of us come up with. I also agree that we should try to avoid any loss of life except in the case of exceptional circumstances. The guards are not SS stormtroopers after all. They are second-line troops, many of whom are barely fit for service and have wives and family waiting for them.”
Piotr reacts angrily at this. Being a Catholic, the Padre’s faith means little to him.
“And what about my countrymen that the Nazis butchered? You think that they didn’t have wives and children? You think that the Nazis didn’t butcher the wives and children along with the male defenders? They all swore allegiance to Hitler before they put on their uniforms otherwise they would have left the country when they had a chance. My countrymen had no such choices. We didn’t ask for a war.”
“If they march under the swastika, then I’m with Terry. It is every captured soldier’s duty to make escape attempts, no matter what the cost.”
The RSM sees that the situation is getting heated already:
“Calm down, lads, please.”
Bruce is already calm. He knows no other state of emotion than calm.
“Is it true what Taffy says, RSM?” he asks. “Would there be reprisals here were to get killed or injured during our escape attempt?”
The RSM strokes his chin. “Injuries – unlikely. As for what would be the case were you to kill Germans making an attempt escape, I’m not so sure. Probably not to the rest of us left here, but the escapees are going to be in a lot of trouble. Fortunately Jerry doesn’t seem to contravene the Geneva Convention in such matters. They know that, whatever they do to our boys, their boys in our POW camps will get the same treatment.”
There is a silence after the RSM has finished speaking:
“Terry, if you want out now, then I’m with you,” Piotr says. “But what did you have in mind? I can’t think of an easy way out of here. Once we’re out of here though, then I think that we will find more options.”
At a loss for a good idea on how to break out that he could convince the others to go for, Terry says:
“I ain’t been here as long as you mooks, so’s maybe I don’t know nuthin’. So we’ll do it Taffy’s way.”
Pointedly leaving out the other man’s rank, he continues with a bold stare:
“But I want in on ‘dis war again before it’s over. I gotta grudge with dem naatzees.”
Lodd speaks. His voice seems to come from under a rock in a very deep cave.
“I can work. I can work, goodt.” His smattering of stilted English is almost overrun by his rural Serbian accent. To emphasize his point, he makes slow shovel movements with his massive arms. Through the tears in one of his sleeves the assembled can see the purple bruising from the most recent “Friday Night Fights”.
Being practically Russian, why was this Slav kept here? It would seem that some of the Offizerien are amateur boxers and professional sadists. At the end of the week they like to entertain themselves with a few boxing matches among the prisoners which are less protected by the Geneva Convention. One Unterfeldwebel in particular likes to cheat and, when his fists begin to ache from punching Lodd in the face, he grabs whatever is around the ring to use. The mark on Lodd’s arm is shaped like a rifle stock.
Other then a few slow hay-makers that never connect does Lodd ever fight back? Hell no, he’s stupid, but not crazy.
Lodd looks at Terry and says “Naatzees!” then crushes his fist on an imaginary enemy.
Piotr looks less than impressed with his supposed Slavic brother:
“Dobzhe, I will take that as another vote for joining an Arbeitskommando working party, unless you have any violent objections, Robert?”
He pronounces Grumpy Bob’s name as in French – Rob-airt.
Grumpy Bob just shrugs. “Looks like the decision has been made already anyway.”
“Dobzhe. I agree to do the talking, but will need your assistance in terms of some donations from your Red Cross Parcels. A decent bribe to the right person and we should hopefully be able to avoid getting assigned to something that requires twelve hours per day of grueling physical exercise, such as mining.”
He takes off his cap – the same strange-looking four-cornered square cap that is standard Polish issue. Into it, he deposits a dozen cigarettes and a bar of chocolate.
“The Germans particularly like the British chocolate,” he explains. “And cigarettes are always in demand. The rest of our supplies they aren’t that bothered with.”
The Padre throws in his entire tin of 50 Player’s:
“You can have all my smokes, mate. The bleedin’ things ain’t no good for you anyway.”
“Compared to living in this camp for another year, everything is healthy. OK, Padre, keep your chocolate as you are so generous with your smokes.”
He passes the cap around waiting for donations from the other four would-be escapees.
Once all have contributed, he places the voluminous cap back upon his head at the same jaunty angle he always wears it at, hiding the contents.
“Dobzhe, kolegy. So I think that we are all done for this evening. I will speak to the Oberleutnant responsible for working parties tomorrow and will report back to you here at 19.00 hours tomorrow.”
He clicks his heels, throws a neat salute to the RSM and his new companions and heads back to his own hut.