With Beards Frozen to our Coats

My father was John James Dimmick, and he enlisted in the South Wales Borderers in 1928 for 7 years with 5 years in the Reserve. During this time he was stationed in Portsmouth, Hong Kong and India. Whilst in India he served on the North-West Frontier as a Vickers machine gunner, bring back home a knife with the word Waziribad impressed into the brass handle, which is now in my possession.

Upon leaving the army in 1936 he went to work in the Powell Dyffryn coal mine in Llanharan, but being in the Reserves, he was called up on September 1st 1939 to the Colours and ordered to report to Brecon ‘at once’.

His regiment eventually arrived in France to join the British Expeditionary Force, but as he waited to embark on a troop train he remembered what he had told my mother before leaving: ‘Don’t worry, the Germans won’t kill me’, not knowing that at that very moment the Germans were planning to do just that if they could, by invading France. At the end of the so-called phoney war of course Germany did indeed invade France and following some hard fighting my father’s unit was over-run by German tanks near Abbeville. What followed was truly horrific. My father and his comrades were lined up by the SS in front of a firing squad, but just as they were about to shoot a senior officer came forward and told them to stop what they were about to do. The men were eventually put into railway cattle trucks as PoWs and sent to Berlin, where they were given cabbage soup. They were moved on again, this time to Poland, where they were incarcerated in an old Polish fort, known as Thorn (Torun), which became their PoW camp.

During his time there my father was used as a farm labourer, helping to send food back to Germany, and whilst engaged in this work he would often make a hole in the sacks of grain he was carrying, so that by the time he reached the waiting truck quite a proportion of the grain had seeped out and been trodden underfoot. This was quite a risky thing to do as if the Germans had realised what he had been up to, depriving the homeland of vital food, then he would most certainly have been shot. My father, however, felt it was his duty to do something to help the war effort in spite of the fact he was a prisoner.

Eventually the Red Army began to push the Germans back, and Thorn, along with other Polish PoW camps, was evacuated, and so began what became to be known as the Long March back to Germany, throughout the Polish winter. The German guards who accompanied the PoWs were themselves terrified of becoming prisoners of the Russians, which meant that if any prisoner became ill and collapsed in the snow then he was killed. My father was one who collapsed but in the nick of time his comrades picked him up before he was spotted and assured the guards that he was alright.

On arriving  in Germany my father was freed by the Americans, who billeted him with an elderly well-to-do German couple. The couple were told that if he was not well looked after they would be shot. It was the only time, my father recalled, that he ever slept between silk sheets!

When he returned to Britain and was reunited with my mother he told her all about his experiences, but the only thing he found in his pockets as a momento of those times was a piece of the black bread he was given as a PoW in his survival pack issued for the Long March.

“We marched with our beards frozen to our coats” he recalled, as my mother threw the black bread on the fire!

By David Dimmick


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