Vol. 9 No. 2 2009
Growing up in Portadown during the Second World War, it is hardly surprising that the sight of soldiers on the streets of the town was a familiar one for me, as it was for all the townspeople. It was a bit like the most serious period of our recent ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, except that there were a variety of soldiers stationed in the Portadown area.
We had the men of various British regiments, mostly English and Welsh. From 1941 we had the American GIs, who were a big ‘hit’ with local girls, and also with us kids who loved the bubble gums they handed out liberally, as well as trying to teach us the rudiments of baseball, their national game. We also had Polish soldiers, men of the Free Polish Army, and of course there were the Belgians, among the most popular and best liked troops stationed in Portadown and other parts of County Armagh.
But there were soldiers of another nationality living in the area, but not members of the Allied Forces. I first became aware of this on a day members of my class in Church Street Primary School walked from the school to the allotments or plots as we called them. Led by our teacher, Mr Jim Barriskill, we carried spades and other implements to the plots in a large open space at Mill Avenue, close to Castle Street. We were apparently ‘Digging for Victory’ as the slogan inspired us, but to be truthful we spent more time enjoying the break from our studies, and didn’t really make much of an impression with our spades.
I remember one day, as we made our way back to school, we had to stop almost opposite the Regal Cinema, to make way for an unusual ‘parade’ making its way over the Bann Bridge. It was a silent procession of young men wearing grey looking uniforms, escorted by British soldiers carrying rifles. Someone, probably Mr Barriskill, informed us that these were German prisoners-of-war, and this made it all the more exciting for us, having the opportunity to see our feared enemies in the flesh.
My most lasting memory of this group of Germans is that they were mostly very young, rather frightened looking, and not all that ferocious at all. I don’t know where they were heading for, but reports suggest that they were probably carrying out some sort of manual work like repairing air raid shelters.
Years later, when I had embarked on my journalistic career, I began to learn more about the German POWs who were held in camps in the area. I was told that the Moyallon-Gilford area was the site of some of the largest German prisoner-of-war camps. There was a site close to where Long Lane now joins the main Portadown-Gilford road, but the largest camps were on the outskirts of Gilford.
Hundreds of Germans were held in two camps, and their presence caused a lot of interest in the area. In those early years of the war, when things were not going very well for the British, there was little contact between the POWs and any of the local people in Gilford. But things were more relaxed in the last few years of the war, and when I interviewed two elderly brothers a few years ago – sadly both are dead – they provided fascinating examples of this.
Both told me that in the closing months of the war, things were so relaxed that some German POWs were able to sneak out through a fairly large hole in the security fence on the perimeter of the camp. These prisoners, who yearned for the end of the war and the prospect of going home, had somehow managed to get civilian clothes and were able to go into some local pubs and enjoy a drink and some ‘craic’ before making their way back to the camp hut, via the same gap in the fence. This, however, ended amid great embarrassment, no doubt, for the camp authorities, when two German POWs spoiled the relaxed scene by escaping from the Gilford camp.
The two men made their way along the railway line, trying to reach the Irish Free State, which was neutral in the 1939-45 War, but they were captured by members of the Ulster Special Constabulary near Poyntzpass. No German prisoners managed to escape from British prisoner-of-war camps back to Occupied Europe, so it would have been a real blow to morale in Northern Ireland if the two Gilford prisoners had made it to the South, where they would have been interned.
The Gilford brothers told me that things were really tightened up in the camp in the weeks after the escape, and they revealed that the British soldiers guarding the men when the escape took place, were replaced by Polish soldiers, who were known to be more harsh in their treatment of the German prisoners.
The two Gilford brothers, like a fairly sizeable number of civilian people were able to gain access to the camp at times, because they were doing jobs or carrying essential goods for the troops on duty. They confirmed what other men have told me down the years, that some people became quite friendly with individual German soldiers, and this resulted in the latter making toys and souvenirs for the civilians and their children.
I came across a sad story when searching through the files of the ‘Portadown News’ some years ago for information about an article I was doing about 1945, the year which brought victory to the Allies. A few months after German surrender, a British Army lorry was making its way along the Portadown-Gilford road. It was carrying about 20 German POWs, and a few British soldiers on guard duty. The lorry, coming from Portadown, went out of control at the junction of the Gilford Road and Knockbridge Road, and overturned, scattering the prisoners all over the road. A young German POW was killed, and a number of others were seriously injured. People living in the area rushed to the scene, and they did all they could to help the injured, both British and German.
The newspaper reported the inquest into the death of the German, held a few weeks later. At the inquest, one of the senior German officers held in the camp, a distinguished medical officer, asked for permission to speak at the end of the hearing. Granted this permission, he told the inquest that he and the other German prisoners had been greatly moved by the compassion shown towards the young Germans by the people of the area who came to their assistance.
The German officer contrasted this with the terrible scenes then being shown in local cinemas of starving prisoners being held in concentration camps in Germany, which had been liberated by the Allied Forces, and he told those at the inquest that it made him personally, and the other German POWs feeling ashamed.
I have often wondered, since reading the report of the inquest, where the young German was buried. There was nothing in the paper to provide a clue, but surely there must have been some burial ground in Northern Ireland where German prisoners-of-war who died from natural causes would have been laid to rest. Perhaps some reader can provide the answer, or point to sources which have the information.
In the mid-1950s, I was working in the ‘Portadown News’ when a Hamburg businessman called into the office. His mission was to find the camp where he had been held prisoner during the war, and felt the newspaper could help. The editor, Mr Douglas Sloan, assigned me, along with photographer Jack Nicholson, to accompany the German, get photographs and a story on his memories of life in the POW camp.
We went to Gilford, as Jack, who was an authority on most subjects, felt this was the most likely place where the German businessman had been incarcerated. Jack knew exactly where the camp huts had been situated, but the German, after inspecting the area, was adamant that this was not the place. He said the only landmark he could recall was some sort of castle in the area. That was enough for Jack to identify the most likely location – the Gosford demesne in Markethill. He was spot on, and when the Hamburg businessman saw the castle inside the demesne, he was able to identify the area as being the site of the prisoner-of-war hut where he was held.
I was interested to see an e-mail in the ‘Portadown Times’ recently from a reader who remembered a German prisoner-of-war camp situated in the area where the Brownstown housing estate now stands. I can remember American soldiers being stationed at Brownstown during the war – they were the soldiers who did their best to teach us to play baseball. But I don’t have any information about a POW camp, so once again it is over to the readers of this journal who may be able to shed light on it.