By George Solly
This article was published in the April 2018 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
My father Ken Solly (1907-1994) was quick to enlist in the Territorial Army, not waiting for call-up and he joined the Royal Army Service Corps in Sutton on 2nd October 1939 at the age of 32.
Three months later following training he was posted to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force attached to the 51st Highland Division. He was captured at St Valery-en-Caux whilst defending Le Harve, and is recorded as a prisoner of war (POW) 12 June 1940 being interred at Stalag XXA1 in Thorn/Trun in Poland. He was released and returned to the UK on 22nd April 1945. These are the basic facts we know but to which he hardly elaborated on during his long life – a common trait of many POWs.
Other than that we learnt that he worked on a farm, lost half his body weight, endured harsh winters and sucked stones to try and extract essential minerals missing in their very meagre diet. He also alluded to the ‘death march’ from Poland to Wuppertal, Germany when hundreds died on their way to freedom.
Researching those missing five years I have managed to sketch out more precisely what probably happened to my father there remained a substantial British force in France after Dunkirk and many support troops were trying to get to the western-most ports of France to get home. The beleaguered 51st Highlanders retreated to the small port of St Valery-en-Caux where the Royal Navy (Operation Cycle) attempted to rescue them. However, with the main German force on the cliffs above using their superior fire power and the rescuing RN destroyers being bombed, the 51st were forced to eventually surrender to General Rommel.
On the 12th June the 6,000 British POWs were assembled to commence their 250-mile march to Holland. Demoralised, hungry and filthy with some gravely injured, any laggards were shot or abandoned. The POWs in this reduced state could only manage about 15 miles a day, reaching St.Pol on the 20th and Tournai in Belgium on the 24th. Eventually on the 29th at Moerbrike, Netherlands they were loaded into cattle trucks for the long journey into Poland. Each cattle truck held about 60 men. There was no food, water, shelter or sanitation and the hot summer sun shone down on the dehydrated men day after day. By the end of the journey more had died, left where they lay.
Stalag XXA was a huge camp with many satellite camps throughout northern Poland south of Danzig (now Gdansk). Where exactly my father went we are not sure, and it is possible that he was transferred several times, ending up working at a farm for at least some of the time.
Suffice it to say he suffered many deprivations and as a result of starving reduced down to 6 stone (36 kg) and went temporarily blind.
During the course of 1945 it became obvious to the Germans that they were losing, and fearful of the advancing Russians, marched the surviving POWs westwards into Germany. With the German Wehrmarkt now considerably depleted, the soldiers guarding the POWs were either old men or young boys who eventually surrendered to the allies. From Wuppertal where my father saw many bodies floating in the Wupper, he was transported back to the UK on 22 April 1945. It took at least 6 months to recover physically and much longer mentally.
And what was the lasting impact of his incarceration of almost 5 years in the hands of his inhuman captors? He joined NAAFI and was involved in the Berlin Airlift, June 1948 to May 1949. Then he was put in charge of the Officers’ Mess at Schloss Bueckeburg before returning to Britain in 1956 on my grandfather’s death to help run the family wholesale fish business in Billingsgate.
Oh yes. He also married a German, my mother!