VE DAY SPECIAL: Soldier freed from the horrors of Nazi camp

Nostalgia - from The Standard's archives
Nostalgia - from The Standard's archives

‘Four terrible years’ experience in German hands was recounted by a Boston-area soldier on his return to the UK.

Driver Eric Albert Lawson, 28, was set free by the Americans on April 13, 1945, following ‘dreadful’ treatment.

The first thing we did was to commandeer all the German cars and cycles and rode round and round the camp

Driver Eric Albert Lawson

Initially captured in Crete, he was transferred to a camp in Berlin by cattle waggons.

In the camp he was put to work on constructing railway lines. “Work was terribly hard - 12 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week,” said Dvr Lawson. “There was no slacking - it was not allowed.” The worst experience he recounted was being evacuated from Berlin in October, 1943, to a transit camp. Here the party was ‘mistaken’ for Yugoslav bandits and forced to march to a punishment camp 17km away. “The guards treated us terribly and kept sticking their fixed bayonets into us, and hitting us with their rifle butts,” he said. “At the end of the march, 15 men had to be taken to hospital with deep gashes.

“When we finally arrived at the punishment camp, we found it next to a Russian concentration camp where they were burying 20-30 every day - just throwing them into a large pit. We were housed in small wooden huts. After a fortnight we were taken back to our transit camp.”

Speaking about the sounds of bombing and gunfire signalling the approaching Allies, he said: “The prisoners did not know quite how near the battle was to them, and on April 12 went out to work at the coal mine as usual. The planes were constantly bombing an aerodrome 6km away and they heard the Americans were closing in. We were ordered to pack our kits ready to march 18km to another camp, but we refused and demanded to see the camp commandant. He eventually told us to go down the mine out of the way of firing.”

That night, down in the dark mines, he described how loud booms from the bombings could be heard over their heads. The following morning they emerged to find the Americans had passed by and gone further into Germany.

“The commandant and all his staff were busy stacking up the rifles ready for surrender,” he said. “It was midnight before two armoured cars came tearing over the hill. Hundreds of us pushed against the wire netting surrounding the camp, breaking it down and we simply mobbed the crews.

“More Americans came along and we climbed all over their vehicles, hugging the soldiers.

“Men were dancing in circles all over the place - free at last!

“The German commandant and his guards were driven away to captivity. We took over the camp.

“The first thing we did was to commandeer all the German cars and cycles and rode round and round the camp.

“We also took it in turn to sit in the commandant’s chair at his desk.”

Two days later, on April 15, lorries took them on the start of their journey back home. Driver Lawson said he was with the first party of ex-prisoners to arrive home by sea, all the previous parties having been flown.

When his ship arrived at Tilbury, the 600 on board were given a ‘royal welcome’ - with bands playing, flags flying, and crowds cheering.

There were many happy reunions of Boston families when the men liberated by the Allied advance in Europe returned home.

The soldiers had endured varying periods as prisoners-of-war - being captured as far as Normandy and Tobruk.

Three of them were interned in the same camp in Germany. They were: driver Percy Bush, RASC, driver Arthur Johnson, 1st Airbourne Division, and Guardsman Thomas Waterhouse, Irish Guards. Fortunately for them, Dvr Bush and Gdsman Waterhouse were in the same working party and in the same barracks. “It made a great deal of difference to be with someone from the same home town,” Dvr Bush told The Standard.

Dvr Bush was captured on June 21, 1942, following a short seige of Tobruk. He was taken to a camp in Italy before being moved to Germany. “Our treatment in Italy was worst than we received in Germany and that was hard enough,” he said. “The food was terrible.”

Friday the thirteenth was not unlucky for the man there - for it was the day that armoured spearheads of the American 1st Army drove through the town. “The camp guards were captured,” said Dvr Bush. “And an American officer told us that we could either remain in the camp until the infantry came, or we could make our way back and meet them. Six of us did this, and before nightfall we met the American infantry.”

On their way they passed the German torture camp at Belsen, which was described as ‘horrific and beyond all belief’.

“We then hitch-hiked to Brussels and were flown to this country on the Tuesday.”