WWII veteran appeals to find fellow POW survivors

Press Release | 20/08/2019

A World War Two veteran who lived through the 1940 Battle for Saint-Valéry-en-Caux and five years as a prisoner of war is appealing to find other survivors of what he experienced.

James ‘Jimmy’ Johnstone, now 98, of Aberdeen, was just 16-and-a-half when he enlisted with the Royal Engineers in 1937.

In 1939, he was called up as part of the 51st Highland Division and journeyed to France, where in June 1940 he survived fighting at St Valéry as it was bombarded by Nazi forces, and was taken by the Germans as a prisoner of war with thousands of his fellow soldiers.

Jimmy Johnstone, WWII veteran, at home in Aberdeen

Jimmy survived five years as a prisoner of war, predominantly spent at the camp Stalag XXB, Marienburg, and concluding with an unimaginable ‘death march’ of hundreds of miles through freezing temperatures as the German army succumbed to the Allied invasion.    

His incredible story includes two daring attempts to escape – and now, nearly 75 years later, Jimmy is seeking to find any other survivors of St Valéry, and even family of the individuals with whom he had tried to escape.


The Battle of St Valéry 

Recalling the battle of St Valéry in 1940, Jimmy said: “The German army was far better trained than us. We were on the retreat until Dunkirk.

“The 51st Highland Division was kept on to fight the German army on their own with the French while the majority of the British troops were evacuated at Dunkirk. A lot of people don’t know that. It hurts me.

“We went all the way back to St Valéry. It’s a little town in the valley, so the Germans had their tanks on the top of the cliffs and had their planes. We were shelled – you have no idea.

“I was actually wounded in the chest – shot. I’ve got a nick in my ear too. I was young, a bit foolish and brave.”

After days of fighting, Major General Fortune, surrendered the 51st Highland Division, and over a period of around three weeks Jimmy and thousands of soldiers were marched to Germany via Belgium and Holland.

Travelling by foot, trains in cattle trucks and on canal barges, he was lucky to survive the horrific conditions of the journey.

Jimmy said: “In Holland we were taken out of the cattle trucks and put onto canal coal barges.

“We were marched all the way.

“I remember a French woman had put some pales of water out for us to drink, but the German guards just knocked them over. The only drop of water we could try to get was at duck ponds.

“We marched all day and the only break was at night. We slept in fields out in the open. We were covered in lice, it was horrible.

“While we made our way through Germany – I’m sure it was in Hildesheim – I remember they marched us through the street. Our clothes were rags, we were covered in lice, unshaven. ‘This is the British army,’ they said. A German woman spat in my face.

“You couldn’t do anything. We were helpless.

“We were once again transferred to cattle trucks. For three whole days we were in there, travelling over to Poland. If you wanted to do your business, you hadn’t any room. People died on that train.”


The Prisoner of War camps

On arrival in Thorn, Poland, Jimmy was deloused and completely shaved at prisoner of war camp Stalag XXA, where he spent a year in slave labour, before he was moved to another POW camp – Stalag XXB in Marienburg – where he was again put to work.

He said: “We arrived in Thorn, and were sent up to an old Polish Army fort. We were shaved completely, completely bare. We got fresh trousers, a tunic and hat.

“There were thousands of us in the camps. My prisoner of war number was 14320 – I still remember it now. My friend from Inverclyde – I cannot remember his name – was given the number 14321, and as the Germans counted out groups they stopped at 14320, so he stayed in Thorn but I was transferred to Stalag XXB in Marienburg. It was sad.

“They had us working on farms, bridges and coal mines. I was lucky to not be working in the mine. I was working on top of it, loading the coal onto trucks.

“All you were given to eat was just watery soup and a German loaf between five men. We worked every day for 12 hours. The guards always watched over us. 

“To start with we were sleeping on the sandy ground in a big marque. Later we had bunk beds. During the night the lice were murder.”


First escape attempt

In June 1943, Jimmy managed to go on the run for a fortnight with his friend who was also a prisoner of war, Jackie Lockwood. They disguised themselves as Polish civilians, who then had to wear a letter ‘P’ on their clothing. But when they were later captured, Jimmy never saw Jackie again.

Jimmy said: “At the camp there was a committee in charge of escaping. So if you had a plan to escape, they would collect vitamin tablets, chocolate, stuff like that for you.

“I had a friend who was Polish, and I asked him if there was any chance of getting two ‘P’s for myself and my friend, Jackie Lockwood. He got hold of them and some overalls – we sewed the ‘P’ badges on.

“We were on the run for two weeks, disguised as Polish civilians. One occasion we jumped on a train and a German inspector came through to check tickets. He just looked at us and saw the ‘P’ badges.

“The weather was fine but Jackie and I slept in a little outhouse. One day we were walking down a main road and there were some workmen doing some repairs on the road. We called out, ‘Guten Morgen’ and ‘Heil Hitler’, but when we went back to the outhouse I mentioned to Jackie I thought we were being watched.

“Shortly afterwards two German police officers pulled up and asked why we were there. We had to say we’d escaped. They took us back and put us in a cell. They came back in with food, and one inspector returned and said, ‘You have to be admired. You were doing your duty as a soldier by escaping.’

“We had this admiration from them. We got fed by them and got a bath. But then they got in touch with the camp guards. When they arrived it was rifle butts into our backs.

“Back at the camp they had a place they called ‘the cooler’. It was a cell with a stone floor. There was a little vent with bars to allow air in. Very dark. I spent 14 days in there alone. It was murder. A horrible place.

“I don’t know what happened to Jackie. I never saw him again.”


The March

In the early hours of January 1945, with the German army feeling the pressure of Russian forces, Jimmy and thousands of prisoners of war were forced to march hundreds of miles back into Germany.

Extremely malnourished and freezing cold, it was on this death march that Jimmy attempted a second dash for freedom with three other British prisoners of war: Gerald Fury, Bert Petrie and Jim Watt.

He said: “We were only aware of what was happening towards the end of the march.

““It was -28c, freezing cold. If you fell by the roadside because you couldn’t cope or keep up, you were just shot.

“During the March, it must have been early April 1945, one of the German guards, who said he had been a prisoner of war in Scotland during World War One, spoke to me. The guards with us were all older guards and no longer able to fight. This older guard couldn’t speak a word of English, so we spoke in German. He said to me, ‘You give me a note saying I have been a good guard, and I will take you and your friends to this farm house I know.’

“I wrote a note that actually said he ought to get a boot up the behind, but he thought I’d written a nice note. He was so happy and put it in his pocket.

“He took me and three friends away to this farm. It was dark and wet. Three days we were there. Then we heard the Russian advance of shells and the bombs firing around us, so the guard told us we’d have to go. So many bullets.

“When the Americans freed the troops, I remember this American sergeant took the old guard and gave him a right doing over. But now I feel so sorry for that old guard. I regret writing that note now. I believe in the Bible and forgiveness. But at that time after being a prisoner of war for all that time that’s how I’d felt.”

Freed by American soldiers, Jimmy says he will “never forget” the feeling of eating the first food piece of real food – a piece of white bread – the troops gave him.

Returning to Scotland, the veteran was considered ‘fit’ to return to service, and would have been deployed to Japan but for the dropping of the atomic bomb halting that action.

After the war, Jimmy went on to serve in the Royal Engineers Territorial Army, finishing up as a Sergeant, and enjoyed careers with the postal service and as a civil servant.


The search for fellow survivors

Jimmy now lives alone and has very limited vision due to sight condition macular degeneration. He is supported by charity Scottish War Blinded, with Outreach Worker Margaret Forrest providing one-on-one support to help him maintain his independence.

And he is seeking any fellow prisoners of war who were there at St Valéry, Stalag XXB or experienced the death march from the camp, or their relatives – including those of Jackie Lockwood, Gerald Fury, Bert Petrie and Jim Watt – to get in touch with him through Scottish War Blinded, who are leading the appeal.    

Jimmy said: “I want to reach out to any ex-prisoners of war who experienced these things, or their families. I would love to hear from them.

 “Believe it or not I would like to talk about St Valéry, to see if anyone else remembers it. And The March.

“If any family of Private ‘Kleats’ McKenzie of the Seaforth Highlanders – a fellow prisoner of war – would be interested to get in touch I would like to speak with them. Kleats refused to work alongside us as we were timber-felling due to starvation. He protested, and was shot dead.

“If Jackie Lockwood, Gerald Fury, Bert Petrie or Jim Watt have any family – children or grandchildren – I would love to meet them. I know Jackie was from somewhere in the north of England.

 “A lot of people say, ‘Jimmy, you’ve got sheer bloody determination.’ A lot of people say I have lead a very unusual, interesting life. I have lived.

“My home help, Scottish War Blinded and all people who pay a visit – that’s the reason I maintain I’m still here. I would like to conclude this real-life story by thanking Scottish War Blinded for all their help and advice.”

If anyone knows of any survivors of the events Jimmy experienced, or is a relative willing to speak with the veteran, please contact Scottish War Blinded on 0800 035 6409.

Scottish War Blinded gives free support to former servicemen and women of all ages, no matter if they lost their sight during or after service.

Visit www.scottishwarblinded.org or call 0800 035 6409 to refer a veteran to the charity.