Former German Prisoner of war reminices about his time at Cairnryan

A German prisoner of war who was detained at Cairnryan after the war has contacted The Galloway Gazette to find out if anyone remembers him from those dark days more than 60 years ago.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 29th June 2012, 12:32 pm

Writing from his home in Germany, Werner Noack, now 88, has many fond memories of his time in Scotland and wants to, in his words, “create a bond with the people of Scotland” who helped make his life as a prisoner more tolerable. He credits the people of Scotland with giving him an understanding of and a respect for other cultures.

He had been called up in 1941 and trained as a radio operator in the German Naval Intelligence Service serving on minesweepers and U-boats. He became a prisoner when his U-boat was captured in the port of Londonderry in June 1945. Werner initially thought he would be back home fairly quickly, but it was not to be. He was held in detention for two years at PoW camps in Belfast and Johnstone in Renfrewshire before arriving, aged 22, in Cairnryan.

His most vivid memory is how cold it was in south-west Scotland that winter. He says: “We were new arrivals at Cairnryan. Some of the huts were occupied so we were put into the new ones. These Nissen huts were what I call ‘shanties’, approximately eight metres long and three metres high with 20 PoWs living in each one. In the middle of each hut was an iron stove with a pipe going up through the roof.

“The German PoWs there were miners from the Upper Silesia region. They often sang songs during the evening, when gathered round the heat of the stove.

“It was winter time when we arrived and the Nissen huts were icy cold as the fuel provided was not enough. Before dusk we would be able to walk through the camp gate, which was not always guarded. This was relative freedom for us. Each of us had a little bag hidden under our coats to collect lumps of coal from the depot nearby. We walked over the hilly pastures following the paths made by sheep. Where the coal was stored, there was a civilian in a little hut who did surveillance on the site but in the darkness he did not see us. Perhaps he did, but maybe he liked the company! We filled our bags with lumps of coal and went back to the campsite. The road back to the huts was long and the coal in our bags was heavy so we had to stop and take a breather. We did not go through the gate to our hut but pushed the bags of coal under the barbed-wire fence as there was a dip in the ground. We were glad to be without the weight and then walked back through our gate into out hut. I think the guards knew about our procurement of coal but they left us in peace, probably because they wanted to have their peace too. After our return the hut was as warm as an oven.”

The port of Cairnryan was a busy place during and after the war. The Atlantic U-boats fleet surrendered at Cairnryan and was anchored there before being towed out to sea and sunk. It was also the collecting point for unused Allied ammunition.

Werner remembers: “We were initially used for loading ships with heavy wooden crates in which, according to the rumours circulating, were gas grenades left over from the war. They were to be taken far out to sea and dumped. In our group I was the only mariner, although I was not a sailor but a radio operator. But as I had worked on minesweepers I had some experience of navigation and I could bring this into use. Conditions were very tight in the dock and I had my own boat for several days but I made light work of it.

“During this time I had a thought-provoking encounter with an English soldier, who was about the rank of sergeant. We passed each other one day and he swore at me. I tried to walk on but he grabbed me. I tore myself away and prepared myself for more trouble. He continued to swear at me, telling me he had lost his brother in the war and he held me, as a German, responsible for this.

“I replied that, yes, he had lost his brother, but I had lost my father due to the war and I must endure that too. He left me and went on his way.

“A few days later we met again and I made a gesture to say to him, without words, ‘This war has hit us all’. I then walked away but he came after me and put his hand on my shoulder, then walked away. I think he was also very thoughtful.

“That winter was long and hard and one night heavy snowfall and high winds resulted in chaos – not just at Cairnryan but all over the country.

“We woke one morning to find out we were completely snowed in. Looking out the window of our Nissen hut, we could not recognise what was outside our cabins at all. We could only open the door with some violent efforts and only the slimmest man could squeeze out. Luckily, we had shovels in our huts. There was nothing to see but snow and we set about shifting the wall of snow outside our door. Two men managed to get outside and pulled themselves up onto the top of the snowdrift and dug and dug until it gave way and we finally had a path out of our hut. When, to our relief, we managed to get out, all we could see were the other huts in the camp all completely covered in snow. When we were on top of the snow it was quite easy to walk over the top of the barbed wire fence!

“During the day a bulldozer managed to get through to us so we could get supplies in but it was several days before the normal order was restored. For seven days we ate peas for lunch and dinner. But I did not mind and even today I like peas as a vegetable!

“There was chaos everywhere because of the snow and we were asked to go and help the London to Glasgow express train which had got stuck in low-lying section of the track nearby with high banks on either side. When we got there the passengers had been evacuated. Our job was the clear the track for the railway engineers to get the train’s wheels back onto the track which they had some success doing. We were there for days helping.

“As well as our work in the camps we also had time for recreation. I used to love going for endurance runs in the hilly landscape of Scotland, which is a beautiful country. I liked boxing too but did not have the opportunity to do any of that when I was at Cairnryan.”

By the spring of 1947, Werner and the rest of the PoWs living at Cairnryan were finally repatriated to Germany. Werner had, over the years, carved models of the Me-109 (a German fighter plane) out of pieces of discarded wood which he sold for three shillings each. Werner carefully saved up this money to buy items to take home with him to Germany for his family as the people there were enduring great hardships – things such as coffee, cocoa and tobacco.

By the height of summer, Werner was back in his homeland after two long years as a PoW. He realised immediately he had come back to a much changed Germany – a mighty country now brought to its knees by war and split in two by the victorious Allies.

His beloved family were in what was known at the time as the Russian zone of occupation. He was moved to a quarantine camp which he describes as “an unforgettable experience”.

One thing seared on his memory was seeing German soldiers returning from Russian captivity. The poor physical and mental state of these soldiers shocked Werner to the core. Many people in the quarantine camp strongly advised those who had returned from PoW camps in Great Britain to stay in the western part of Germany, occupied by the British and the Americans, not go over into the Russian zone. But Werner had his family there, including his widowed mother, and knowing that she would be longing for his return, he crossed the border into a new life in what would become East Germany.

If you remember Werner or any PoWs held at Cairnryan at the end of the Second World War, contact The Galloway Gazette by email at [email protected], by phone on 01671 404767 or write to Louise Kerr, The Galloway Gazette, 71 Victoria Street, Newton Stewart, DG8 6NL.