British POWs witnesses to The Holocaust
More than 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz and a book has just been published which tells the story of life inside the camp – from the perspective of a British Prisoner of Forgotten War who bore witness to its horrors.
Lionel Wadley was one of hundreds of Allied men who were sent to E715 Auschwitz, a set of huts situated on the outskirts of the concentration camp and a few miles from the crematoria.
Some British soldiers didn’t survive and many of the remaining ones returned home keen to forget the horrors of The Holocaust – and their subsequent march to freedom. A number provided written testimony in the Nuremberg Trials.
Their forgotten wartime experience meant all aspects of their lives were being played out against a constant backdrop of suffering and death.
This horrendous tide of misery included them regularly experiencing ash falling around them as the crematoria was a mere couple of miles from their location. They were also told to work, alongside concentration camp victims, in the colossal IG Farben factory.
With some ‘protection’ afforded to them, by the Geneva Convention, the soldiers were able to receive Red Cross Aid parcels. The assistance meant some of them reportedly passed their meagre food rations, provided by camp guards, to camp inmates. There were also stories of how the British tried to sabotage the German war effort.
Lionel Wadley rarely spoke of his time at the camp. Indeed, it was a chance remark to his daughter which led her asking him to jot down his recollections.
And so, more than half a century later, he put pen to paper and started to painstakingly write. His work provides a startling insight into what life was like for the British in the camp, where they were afforded some small dignities with their huts containing elements of warmth and washing facilities. It was, perhaps, something which would have been in stark contrast to the appalling conditions suffered by the other inmates at Auschwitz.
Lionel’s account also produces some fascinating insights into what his childhood was like – and how military training moulded him before going off to forgotten war.
It tells the story of a bygone age which will surely intrigue social historians looking at pre-war life in Britain. It includes his capture, in Africa, the horrific sea voyage to an Italian POW camp, where illness was rife, and the train ride to a place which none of the POWs had ever heard of. A place which none of them would ever forget. Auschwitz.
Handwritten notes to published book
‘Dad didn’t talk about the forgotten war and he never really spoke about any part of his life. We first read his account shortly after he passed away and we were all quite shocked and surprised by how little we knew about his past – despite him living with us for 14 years,’ says his daughter, Lorraine Michael.
‘There was much which stood out for us. He went through so much during the war. His capture, his prison ship being torpedoed, his time spent in so many camps and his walk back to freedom.’
‘He had a number of physical scars – including a mark on his head which he received when the camp at E715 Auschwitz was bombed. He had a number of scars on his legs caused by the frostbite which happened during the march from Poland.’
‘For someone who experienced such awful sights, he was the most placid of men. He was never bitter. He was very gentle. You would think if you would have seen all that then you would be angry, but he was never like that. He was the complete opposite.’
His handwritten notes were painstakingly recorded before his death, in 2006. Lorraine sat down and put aside several months to type them all up. It was a Herculean task.
‘I think he found it very therapeutic to write. It was really his first opportunity to express what had happened to him. He had put it back to the mind and it was a chance to open a door for him to get it all down on paper.’
‘His notes were difficult to type up as his handwriting was very poor. You had to know your way around his words and his lettering. I felt sad for him as I didn’t know how much he had been through and I felt tremendous pride as we can never understand what life must have been like for him or the men around him.’
Last year’s lockdown meant the family had the time to complete the next step: publication. Dad’s Forgotten War also includes reflective insights into his life from both the point of view of Lorraine and her daughter, Sarah.
‘Not even my Mum knew about it,’ says Lorraine. ‘I don’t think he wouldn’t have talked about it to his friends or family. There was no real help for him after the Forgotten war and it just seems that when he came back, he never really talked about it.’
I must admit a vested interest here. Lorraine approached me around ten years ago after the publication of my own book on the same subject, Allies in Auschwitz. I had been privileged to have interviewed three E715 Auschwitz POWs: Brian Bishop, Arthur Gifford England and Doug Bond.
Having read the book herself, she began her own journey of discovery with her daughter which included meetings with other E715 survivors and a visit to the notorious site itself in 2019.
‘It’s a unique place which everyone should visit as it has an atmosphere which I never experienced before.’
‘Meeting other survivors of E715 Auschwitz made it all very real. We spoke with one man, Arthur Gifford England, who would have met Dad but he couldn’t remember him. We also spoke with Brian Bishop who confirmed much of what was in Dad’s account.’ To obtain your copy of Dad’s Forgotten War, send a cheque for £9.99 (which includes £2 for postage and packing) made payable to L. Michael. The address: DJLPR, 1 Eden House, Forge Lane, Saltash, Cornwall. PL12 6LX. Please ensure you clearly mark the envelope with the letters DJLPR as we cannot accept responsibility for lost mail.