GERMAN PRISONERS OF WAR
During the re-occupation of France and Belgium, many German troops were captured and brought to Gilford. Here, they were interned at Elmfield Prisoner of War Camp, situated at the Polo Field at the top of Dixon’s Hill. The camp ran right through from the main Portadown Road to the Lurgan Road, and had two main routes running through the prison compound. There were a number of look-out posts, as the camp held approximately 1800 prisoners. It was mainly guarded by the Royal Corps of Signals, although various English regiments also did guard duty, helped with exercise duties or assisted with the transportation of prisoners. The Signal Corps had already been billeted at the Elmfield camp for some time prior to the arrival of the internees. One of the British Army Camp Commanders was a Southern Irishman.
The Signal Corps Adjutant was Captain Charles Chitterbuck. He and the top man, Colonel Norrish were both very well known to Albert Uprichard, whose family owned the Elmfield and Bannvale estates.
When the Germans and Italian prisoners initially arrived in Gilford in January 1945, they were viewed by the locals as monsters. They arrived by lorry, and most were typically German in appearance – good looking and with blond hair. Long columns of prisoners were commonly seen around the town. They often arrived in the camp in large batches, travelling in British Army trucks, escorted by armed guards. They wore khaki uniforms, very similar to British Army uniforms, with a large yellow diamond-shaped patch on their back denoting their prisoner of war status.
From the road and the elevated ground outside the camp, the Germans could be seen exercising in the prison yard. They were often singing. Guards at the camp said that most of the older Germans were friendly, but some of the younger men were fanatical Nazis, refusing to believe Germany was losing the war.
Most of the internees were German Army or Luftwaffe prisoners. There were in fact few high-risk fanatical pro-Nazi prisoners held in the Northern Ireland internment camps, due to the fear that they might escape and get across the Irish border. However, early in 1945 there was great excitement in the area, when four prisoners did escape from the camp at Gilford.
The men had only arrived 48 hours earlier, and the embarrassing escape resulted in a huge search operation involving soldiers, police, and the general public. Even schoolchildren were encouraged to look out for the men. Two of the men – Martin Wolff, a member of the Luftwaffe and Heinrich Westermann, a soldier, were recaptured later that evening by Tandragee police, in the home of Mr Michael Callan, of Cordrain, Tandragee. Mr Callan had alerted the R.U.C. when he noticed one of the men studying a map. It appears they had been hoping to get to Dublin, where one of them had relatives.
It was a further two days before the other Germans – Horst Zimmerman and Ferdinand Kanowski – were captured in a joint army-police operation. These men were picked up near Poyntzpass, as they made their way along the railway-line towards the border with Eire. That evening they were returned to the prison compound and camp security was tightened.
Gilford man, Dougie McGuiness, who at that time lived at Mullabrack Road, near Scarva, once told me he was convinced that he had seen and spoken to the men at Terryhoogan Locks, but they hadn’t replied. He also told me how later he watched the German prisoners breaking stones in a quarry just beyond Tallyho Castle, at the site of Pennington’s old house, near Scarva. He said they were treated harshly by the guards, who kept machine guns on the men as they worked.
Whilst interred in the Elmfield Camp, another German prisoner, Schoneit Heinz, who had only recently arrived in Gilford, became ill and was taken to Banbridge District Hospital. He had developed acute appendicitis and needed life-saving surgery. Mr. T. J. Gibson, F.R.C.S. successfully carried out the operation. He was assisted by a German Army doctor, who was also prisoner of war at the Gilford camp.
Army trucks regularly transported the prisoners to work on local farms. Farmers were very glad of the POW’s to help with cutting down plantations, trimming hedges or helping with potatoes. Often soldiers bought cigarettes in local shops. Sometimes the prisoners would be given loose Woodbine, which they much appreciated. It wasn’t that local people were being disloyal to the British and Allied cause or were in sympathy with Germany, but they felt sorry for the young men separated from their families.
Not many people had the chance of fraternising with the prisoners-of war, as they were always escorted by armed guards when they were moved from one camp to another. An old quarry in the grounds of Woodbank, across the road from the Prisoner of War Camp, was used for all kinds of target practice. The prisoners were brought there to build up sandbags and prepare it as a target range. The Sinton children who lived at Woodbank often watched, and occasionally talked to the prisoners, even though they tried to hide behind the nearby trees.
One regular visitor to the Elmfield Camp, was the mother of Field Marshall Montgomery. She did a lot of work with the Red Cross, and during the war years regularly attended Church in Gilford.
Civilians too often had occasion to go into the internment camp for one purpose or another. In order to gain entrance to the camps, it was necessary to have the correct documentation, signed by the Camp Commandant authorising admittance. At the Elmfield camp, sentries stopped visitors and checked documents. They then called the Sergeant of the guard, and detailed two soldiers to escort you to your destination, where you could speak to the relevant person. Afterwards two soldiers would escort the visitor back to the gates.
The prisoners often showed their appreciation for acts of kindness, by carving toys and gifts from pieces of wood, and giving these to local families for their children. Following the defeat of Germany on May 8 1945 the strict security was relaxed. Internees were seen more often in the neighbouring towns, as they were taken under light escort to various assignments, prior to being released and allowed to go home.
Local people could now often chat to the Germans. By now it was realised in the town, that many of the German and Italian prisoners were really very likeable and pleasant young men. Sometimes the prisoners were taken out the country roads for exercise.
The more free and easy conditions did have a sad side effect. On May 25 1945 two young German soldiers were killed on the outskirts of Markethill when the British Army lorry in which they were being taken back to the camp crashed. Another young German prisoner lost his life the following day, when a British Army truck overturned on the Portadown-Gilford road at Knock Bridge. William Jungalaw was pinned underneath the lorry which had been taking him back to the Gilford camp. A number of other men were injured in the same incident. Civilians who lived nearby rushed to the aid of the young prisoners and comforted the injured until medical assistance arrived.
Herr Schuller, a German Officer who attended the inquest, told how he and his comrades had been disgusted to learn what had happened in the Nazi concentration camps. He said the treatment of the people kept in those camps was in stark contrast to the way German Prisoners had been held in Northern Ireland. He thanked the local people who had tried to save the lives of the two young men who had lost their lives in the accidents.
Some years ago in an article in Portadown Times two elderly brothers John and James McArdle who lived at Ballynagarrick Road, close to the camp, were interviewed. John remembered a tall, distinguished U-Boat Commander, amongst the German Prisoners held in Gilford. He called himself HANS KELLER, but told John that this wasn’t his real name, and that he hadn’t even given his proper name to the Camp Commander. Apparently the U-Boat commander arrived in Gilford just a few days after VE day. He had sailed his submarine along with others into Lough Foyle to surrender to the Royal Navy in Londonderry. He told John much of his service had been in the Irish Sea and the Atlantic close to Northern Ireland, probably waiting for convoys heading for Canada and America.
John also said that although it wasn’t widely known, in fact four or five Germans discovered a hole under the barbed wire fence surrounding the camp. For months they crawled out each night to call at a house where they had made friends, returning each night without being detected.
After the war ended and as conditions in Germany improved, the prisoners of war were gradually allowed to return home. The numbers soon declined, but it was some years after the war before all the prisoners were repatriated and the camp finally closed approximately three years later. Before leaving Gilford a gold thurible (used for incense), was presented to Canon Doran of St. Patrick and St Coleman’s Catholic Church, Laurencetown by the prisoners. Canon Doran had been the Chaplain who regularly said Mass at the Gilford camp.
Eventually in 1948, the large number of huts from the Elmfield P.O.W. camp were sold at an auction which lasted two full days. People came from all over Ireland to buy them. Many were bought by Bord na Mona, the Southern state turf company. In one of the huts purchased by a local family, a map was found in one of the flanges, detailing what looked like an escape plan (showing the Irish seaports).
A few years ago Tim Sinton of Woodbank, confirmed for me that the septic tanks which belonged to the Prisoner of War Camp were still standing and visible at the bottom of one of his fields, alongside the main Portadown Road. He also explained that during the war, an old quarry in the grounds of Woodbank had been used for all kinds of target practice. He remembered the prisoners being brought down there to build up sandbags and prepare it for a target range.
He related to me how many years later, one of these prisoners met Banbridge man Stanley Ferguson in Switzerland. When discovering Stanley was from Northern Ireland, he said that he had been here during the war in a little place called Gilford. Stanley explained that he lived in Banbridge, but had cousins – a boy and a girl – Tim and Diana Sinton, who lived in Gilford, and went on to explain that they lived across the road from the P.O.W. camp. The German asked Stanley did they by any chance have sandy or ginger coloured hair for he remembered two sandy-haired children watching through the trees, as they built the target range. Tim confirmed to me that they most certainly did talk to the prisoners when they were down at the quarry, and he had no doubt that they were indeed the children he remembered.
During 2005, Karl Heinz Przybylski who had been an internee in the Elmfield Camp, returned to Gilford hoping to see what remained of the site. Sadly, no part of the camp exists, except for the septic tanks which still remain and are visible at the bottom of fields in both the Woodbank and Elmfield estates. The fields run alongside the main Gilford to Portadown road. Herr Przybylski did spend the afternoon with the family who currently own Elmfield and he left with them a copy of his Conduct sheet. They also have a small glass painting, done by another one of the prisoners whilst in Gilford. The painting (shown above) depicts an elegantly dressed young lady who was regularly seen passing or visiting the camp.