Life in Stalag 4B

William E. Rowbotham

RCAF

Observer
Rank: Pilot Officer
Squadron: 434 Bluenose
Aircraft: LK693, Halifax
Stationed: Tholthorpe, Yorkshire England
Target: Mannheim
Date: 18/11/1943
Camp: Stalag IVB
POW #: 263618

About Our Badge: It represents the schooner "Bluenose".
Our Motto was "In excelsis vincimus" (We conquer in the heights)


Being Shot Down and Taken Prisoner

I was just 23 years of age in 1943 when I was taken prisoner. I was from Hemsford, Saskatchewan. I wasn't the first in town to sign up; another one of the boys from my school joined up first, finished his training with the Royal Air Force, and then sadly was killed in the Battle of Britain.

Graduation Day

From my diary

Interrogation Centre, Frankfurt, Germany

I was shot down on a raid on Ludwigshaffen Mannheim on November 18, 1943. It was a cold, foggy night with mist on the ground. I bailed out at 17,660 feet and could see the search lights coming up through the mist and fog and the cars and trucks going along the Autobahn running along the north side of the Rhine River. I worked the main shrouds of my parachute to keep clear of the search lights and traffic below. I landed south east of Cologne on a side hill, my feet slipped from underneath me, but I was okay and buried my chute.

Knowing I was north and east of the Rhine River I headed North across some cultivated land. I don't remember how long I had been walking, but I suppose it was after midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning when I came upon a haystack. I thought I would lean up against the haystack and have a little rest. It wasn't very long before I started to feel drowsy and decided to move on.

It was still misty and foggy and I hadn't gone many yards when I came upon a fence. The minute I touched the wire to go through or over a couple of dogs came running out barking and close behind a couple of the Home Guard, so I was taken prisoner.

They took me to a house and got a girl up from the chesterfield who could speak English. I don't remember what the conversation was now, but I think I had a cup of coffee and a cigarette and most likely gave them one or two. They were very civil; they were not hostile towards me or anything, and eventually one got on the phone to Cologne and they sent out a car or van to pick me up.

I was taken to an old spiral prison in Cologne which was located next to the Cathedral. The prison cells were on the outside wall of the spiral staircase and the window was a slit in the wall 5-6 inches wide and twenty some inches long. The exterior had the appearance of a turret and was possibly used by riflemen and soldiers to defend the City at one time.

Next to the prison was an annex and I could see other members of my crew being brought in for interrogation and stripped of their belongings and the Germans trying on their flying suits. That is what the Germans did: they took our flying suits, boots, navigation watches and anything they could use.

I don't remember how long I was there. Then they sent me to Frankfurt Interrogation Centre. The Interrogation Centre at Frankfurt was a one- storey building of concrete or concrete block with a hallway down the centre and prison cells off to the sides. Cells were 8 to 9 feet long and 6 to 7 feet wide, with single bed. I don't think there were any exterior windows. There was a small opening in the door where food could be passed in. All I remember getting to eat was soup and rye bread.

The time in Frankfurt was generally about ten days and the procedure there was to turn the heat up and down. You were either freezing or suffocating and you felt weak and faint, and then they would take you from the cell for interrogation. The Interrogation Centre was run by the S.S. and Gestapo. The fellow that interrogated me was a red-headed fellow and an Oxford graduate who had returned to Germany two to three years before the war started. He spoke good English and was well-versed in the English attitudes and customs and he told me more about the squadron than I could hardly believe. We had lost our A Flight Commander a week to ten days before I was shot down and he had taken with him the Chief Navigation Officer and Gunnery Officer as well, so this Flight Commander's job was up for grabs. There was a Flight Lieutenant Tyler on the squadron who was being considered for the job as well as someone from outside.

Well, according to the German Intelligence Officer there should be no argument - the senior man should get the position and was well qualified to do the job. Another thing, he knew where the crew had trained and he told me our wireless operator was an English lad who had trained at Pensacola, Florida, which was true. He also told me it was not our war (Canadian that is) and that we shouldn't be involved and that we were just a bunch of criminals and gangsters, let out of prisons in Canada, to come over here to bomb and murder women and children.

One day the interrogation officer showed me some pictures of a bombed out city and was telling and showing me what a terrible thing we were doing and what devastation we had done to this fine German City of Hamburg. I replied that the pictures were very much like the ones of the City of Warsaw I had seen before I left Canada. That remark didn't go over very well. He jumped up and down, pounded his table and that was the end of questioning for the day.

POW Papers

They tried all the tricks in the book to get information. They were your friend, they were there to help you and they had people come to your cell and pose as Red Cross officials to get information on the Crew. They tried to play on your sympathy to give information about the pilot (who went down with the plane) so they could pass it on to his next-of-kin in Canada.

We were only allowed to give rank, name and number and once the interrogation officer realized that was the only information he was going to get, you were on your way, but they had a good try for ten days to get more information if they could.

I'm Going to a Holiday Resort!!

One of the incidents that I would like to mention here is that one of the fellows from home, who I met in London during July or August on leave, was in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was transferring that day to the American Flying Core because he had been born down in South Dakota, and he was telling me how things were better in the American Air Core. Anyway, when we were lined up in columns of three outside of the Interrogation Centre at Frankfurt to march off to the railway station for the prison camp, I looked over my right shoulder and here's this guy behind me. So, I said, "Sure surprised to see you here", well he said, "I am not going to the same camp you are. They send the Americans down to southern Austria where it's nicer weather and it is more like a holiday resort".

Life In Prison Camp Stalag IV B, Muhlberg on Elbe

So they loaded us on to the box cars and I don't know how many there would be to a box car, but it wasn't air tight. There was standing and sitting room and as we went from Frankfurt to Muhlberg, every station we passed through was just crowded with people and they were lined up for food.

They had soup kitchens set up at all these stations, and these people were just on the move from one bombed out city to another. When the Air Force bombed Cologne, the people would move to, say, Leipzig. Then when Leipzig was hit they would move somewhere else. There were literally hundreds of thousands on the move and that was near the end of November '43 so you can just imagine what it was like near the end of the war in '45.

When we got to Stalag IVB, just a few miles south of Muhlberg on the Elbe, the Commandant welcomed us and told us, "For you, the war is over" and told us about the warning wire and what would happen to us if we stepped across it. Stalag IVB was a transit army camp. The camp contained 240 or more acres and was surrounded by a page and barbed wire fence on 10 foot posts, 4-6 feet apart. Security on the camp consisted of watch towers around the perimeter manned by armed guards and in between patrolled by guards on foot. Sixteen feet inside the perimeter fencing was the warning wire and if you crossed it you were shot.

The 240 or so acres were subdivided and cross fenced sometimes with a double fence into 8-10 compounds or more. I am not sure whether I saw them all. These compounds were occupied by the different nationalities in the camp, and there was the British compound of which we were part, and the Italian, French, Dutch, Russian, etc., and then there was a recreational compound used for soccer, football and rugby, and just to walk around for exercise. There was every nationality of Europe in the camp, from time to time, including two hundred Danish police.

The most pitiful sight I did see one day was a whole column of Russian soldiers coming in, three abreast, and one quarter to one third mile long, all amputees (both legs off), walking in on their knees.

Muhlberg was a prison camp during the First World War, one of the boys in our hut told me his father had spent time there during World War I.

The buildings were wooden frame, single storey structures, 40-50 feet wide and 150 feet long, with lined interior walls and ceiling with inlaid red brick floors, running water and electrical power. Down the one side and half way up the other were a double set of tandem triple bunks, which would cover an area approximately 12' x 7' and accommodate twelve prisoners. At the one end was some washing facilities, running water and a large vat for brewing up tea, coffee or cocoa and at the other end near the entrance to the hut a single toilet: used for emergencies only. The balance of the floor area, approximately 25%, was used for the dining eating area and cook stove. The cook stove was made of brick with a sheet metal steel plate top, more of a grill than anything. The Germans supplied us with a ration of coal and wood for heat and cooking.

The toilets were outside in a one storey frame building about 30' x 10' and was ten or twelve holes and there was no privacy. I don't think there was even any doors on the building. The septic tank was pumped out once a week into a tank wagon and was pulled away by the Russian prisoners and taken out to the fields.

During most of the time we were at Stalag IVB, we received Red Cross parcels from Canada, USA, Britain, New Zealand and Australia, while the Germans gave us bread, potatoes, cheese, some processed meat, jam and ersatz coffee, reportedly made from coal.

Sports equipment was supplied by the Red Cross and Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.). Each hut had a representative elected to maintain order, a few rules and discipline, and also one for the compound to negotiate with the Germans.The man in charge of the hut would appoint a number of people to go to the German cook house to collect the rations for the day, which generally consisted of bread and potatoes and sometimes soup, cheese, margarine, jam or cured meat.

Then when they got the rations back to the hut, they were divided out to the combines. The combines consisted of four to six people and someone from that combine was responsible to collect the rations for the day, so things were sort of orderly.

Our crew of six which survived being shot down formed one combine and stayed together during the whole eighteen months that we were in prison camp.

The daily routine generally consisted of:

But there was lots of things one could take part in, just about all professions were represented in the camp: engineers, professors, lawyers, actors, producers, etc.

There were lectures and courses given in several languages, which in a matter of six weeks were good enough for you to get out of Europe, but first you had to get out of the camp. The guys got out of camp by swapping places with someone on fatigues. The fatigues were carried out by the Russian, Serbs, Poles, Italians, etc., who were taken out of the camp to bring in supplies of wood, coal, etc.

The theatre group were a great success. They put on live plays, etc. and the competition on the soccer field was great - the English against Scotland, etc. and rugby - the South Africans against the Australians.

Some of the fellows were able to carry on with their professions right there in camp. I heard of a lawyer doing litigation for a fellow prisoner who found out he had married a bigamist. Both her husbands, in the Air Force, had found their way to Stalag IVB.

The Germans knew we were getting the news and would come and search the place and pull everything apart - mostly the beds, but that wasn't hard. The spring and mattress consisted of wooden slats and a straw mattress, so with one pull of the mattress, half of the boards would fallout and the job was done.

I remember one of the 5.5. Corporals, who was a strong Nazi, was from Leipzig and every time he went home the place was bombed, his folks were homeless, relatives were killed, and he would come back in a miserable mood. He would draw his revolver once in a while but he never shot anyone, but you had to be careful.

The buildings were hot in summer and cold in winter and I had a top bunk. I remember in summer, laying there and in the morning my toes would be covered in blood. What had happened was that during the night the bed bugs had dropped down from the ceiling and I had squashed them between my toes.

Bed bugs and lice were common and every three months or so we were marched the three miles into Muhlberg to the public showers. We would go in the building, strip to the skin, and put our clothes on a rack. While we went through the shower, the clothes went through another section and were fumigated and you could get an extra shower if you could produce a few lice for the commandant's inspection.

There was a hospital on the camp staffed by British doctors and orderlies and supplies provided by the Red Cross through Geneva. There was a lot of pneumonia and pleurisy in the camp and T.B. was spread around through the camp by Russians and Serbs, who moved around from compound to compound begging for food. I thought I had done very well staying out of hospital while I was in camp but when I got back to England, the doctors discovered I had T.B., which was no surprise to them.

When we were first in prison camp in 1943, when an air raid siren went off and you could hear the planes coming, you were ordered into the hut and stayed there until the raid was over. If you didn't move smartly, they would release the dogs to chase you in.

Later on in 1944 and early 1945, when the bombers had fighter escorts, things got a lot more relaxed. The prisoners carried on as normal and the German Guards leaned up against the wall of the buildings and watched the show.

One day the fighters spotted an ammunition train sheltered in the trees about a mile from camp. They ignited the cars with some cannon shells and then it started to glow and then the car would blow up, igniting other cars. It was a real site and our morale got a big boost that day.

One day during a bombing raid, a fellow airman bailed out just a half mile or so from camp. The guards smartly went and brought him in. As mentioned before, Stalag IVB was a transit army camp and in late December 1944, in the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive against the allies in Belgium, a number of American soldiers were taken prisoner and arrived at our camp.

They were a disillusioned lot. They had only arrived in Europe some three weeks before and here they were, and believed the war was lost. Well, it didn't take long for the fellows in the camp to tell them what had happened.

Another time, a few hundred to a thousand women arrived from some bombed out industrial town or city and were in the next compound to ours for a couple of days.

Also, in the closing months of the war, the German Air Force made an air patrol every day over the prison camp to make sure there were no riots going on and one day they swooped in too low, killing one prisoner with the tail of the plane and injuring another. They kept going and plowed through a double 10' wire fence with posts 4' to 6' apart. They were very lucky to have survived but we did hear they were stripped of their rank and sent to the Russian front.

So, you can see with the war drawing to a close there was lots of action and with the supply lines cut off, food got very scarce. There was no Red Cross parcels coming in and the Germans were not prepared to feed us, although they were able to give us some potatoes, cabbage and some pea soup, and that was basically it.

We did hear, after we were liberated, that there were Red Cross Medical parcels in a warehouse in Muhlberg, which were there for emergencies, but the British medical officer had failed to release them for our use. Instead, the rats got them.

The American army came to the Elbe River, about nine miles west of camp and then sat and stayed there for about three weeks, while the Russians came about fifty miles and liberated us. An armoured division moved through during the night and early that morning the Cossacks arrived to clean up. It wasn't very long after that, 3 or 4 days, that Lloyd Wheatly and I left camp, made our way some 30 km to Torgau, walked over the dismembered bridge where the American army took us to Halle and from Halle to Leipzig, Leipzig to Brussels and then back to England.

Post War

Upon my return to England after spending eighteen months in Stalag IVB, the Doctors discovered I had T.B. It was active and had been bothering me for the past five months or more. The doctors gave me an option; I could take treatment in England or be sent to the Deer Lodge Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My home was not near Winnipeg but some 800 miles away in southwestern Saskatchewan, not far from the Alberta border. I would have no family visiting, but in England I had a girlfriend named Nan, so I decided to take my treatment in England.

The doctors believed that with early treatment, the TB could be brought under control and arrested, so I was sent to the No. 11 Canadian General Hospital in Taplow Buckingham, located on Lady Astor's estate which was located north of Windsor Castle and not far from Wycombe.

My recovery from TB progressed well, and half my time was spent visiting my girlfriend and her family in Morcambe, Lancashire. Nan and I married in July and honeymooned in the Lake district of Northwest England.

I met Nan before I became a POW as hse just just happened to be the sister of the flight engineer on our crew. After some time holidaying with my new wife, my health steadily improved and I was sent home to Canada on the Canadian Hospital Ship, Lady Nelson.

I lived with my father and stepmother in Regina. In late fall I went skiing with friends, hit a tree and broke my ankle, which took about 6 weeks to heal.

When my wife Nan arrived in Canada in early February, 1946,we moved to the farm in Lemsford, about 80 miles away by CP Rail, west of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. My father had homesteaded some of the farm in 1908-1909. My second oldest brother had farmed the land during the war while my older brother was in the Army, my younger brother was in the Navy and I was in the Air Force.

Dad had a full line of up to date machinery and he suggested that I take advantage of the offer being made to Veterans and buy some land nearby, so it could be farmed with the same machinery. I made an offer on some land and away we went to the Veterans Land Act in Swift Current to have it approved. But unfortunately my offer was turned down. Well now, I had dropped the car off at a garage to repair a gas leak, while Nan and I went to the café nearby. The next thing we heard were fire trucks….and upon further investigation found that it was our car that was on fire! I hadn't had a chance to get insurance so the car was a complete write off. Nan and I talked it over and made a decision to go to Alberta. We boarded the next CP passenger train to Calgary. Now when I had been in prison camp, a half dozen fellows there had bragged about how beautiful it was, and I did figure on visiting there sometime, but not quite this way!

After working at various jobs, I went into Real Estate and did very well. I went to school for four years to pursue an Appraisal degree, receiving my accreditation in 1964. Altogether I spent 43 years in the real estate business, 29 of which I was an Appraiser.

I have been very fortunate and feel truly blessed. Over the years my wife and I attended numerous Air Force and POW Reunions. I retired in 1991 shortly after Nan died of cancer. In retirement, I curl during the winters and golf in the summers. I'm a member of various organizations and what with that and my sports, I keep busy and try to get the best out of life.

Bye for now, and God bless you all.

Only four of these brave men in the above photograph came home.
Photo courtesy W. Rowbotham collection


William Rowbotham's medals

William Rowbotham donated his medals and many other memorabilia items from his War experiences to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta (map), and you will find them on display there.

We Will Remember

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With sincere gratitude from all Canadians


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