The Death March, for Ken Hay

From the life of Ken Hay

By Fran Brown

“Herewith, as promised, my story – but don’t expect anything heroic. I am no hero, nor was I ever.”

Sure, Ken had never slain a dragon, defeated a troll or rescued a damsel in distress, but he had the courage to keep going, and to me that is heroic. I met him a few years ago after a poetry reading during a Remembrance Day luncheon. He said it was like I was there – in the war. After shaking hands with everyone in the room, we sat down to eat.

Ken sat on my left and he told the table these fantastical stories of a time I have never, and will never, see. They were the kind of stories one reads in a book, and yet here sat a man not fantastical; He was real and his stories were real too, and I listened like a giddy child in circle time. I passed my grandfather the butter, only to be scolded by the man next to him for interrupting, followed by another scolding from my grandfather. I apologised and returned to Ken, who was now in stitches of laughter. I met up with him again for the full story.

Ken was born in Bamford Road, Barking. On the 23rd January 1945 he began his one thousand mile Death March to Freedom from Zabrze in Poland, through Czechoslovakia, to Bavaria in Germany. Now you have an idea of how far he travelled to let me tell you his story.

Ken’s platoon was sent to take out a believed disabled self- propelled gun being used as an observational post three fields away through no-man’s-land. One by one, they ascended the ladder into the belfry of the farmhouse where the Platoon Commander, Lt. Cottle, had laid out their route and task. As they looked over, a cornfield ran away south from the farmhouse and at the end was a gap just wide enough to take vehicles through. They would be going at night, and were told to leave all nonessentials.

They spread out wide and moved up the cornfield, and as luck would have it, Bill, Ken’s brother, appeared on his right, giving the hedge a thumbs down. In his naivety, Ken misunderstood what that meant, and pressed on. Cpl. Hay made the suggestion that they abort the mission. The order was made. Bill, however, pointed out how it wasn’t going to be that easy; they were now behind enemy lines and he believed the hedge through which they had come was actually manned. The Germans had let them in, and would not be so accommodating on the way out. Bill’s plan was to split the platoon in half. He would take one half, and the Lt. would take the other. Bill’s team would attempt to go through the hedge and Lt. Cottle’s would spread out and provide covering fire. Once through, Bill’s team would do the same.

The Platoon did as they were told and turned their rifles to the hedge that now threated their freedom. Bill had Grimes, the son of a cartoonist who had spent some time in Germany. He called out to the hedge, “B kompanie” (B company). It was not a password but they had hoped it would do something. But alas, hope was short lived, and instead the Germans began firing on the Platoon with machine guns. Bullets littered the air in both directions as they fired back. Their rifles were pathetic in response. Grenades were thrown out and Ken felt their warmth caress his check as they exploded somewhere nearby.

Trapped and under fire, Ken could see balls of red light flying towards him. He knew immediately what they were, they whistled over his head and he prayed that if one were to hit him let it be sooner rather than later. Bill came running back and dived next to Ken. “Follow me” he said, trying to keep his promise to their mother. By the time Ken had processed what was said, it was too late, Bill had disappeared. And so ended Ken’s battle experience. In the end, having entered with thirty men, sixteen made it home, five were captured, and nine were killed.

Bill took part in the Divisions first big battle on the Hill, where he was wounded and evacuated back to England. A piece of landmine or shrapnel entered him through his right buttock. They had to open his stomach to remove it. Their parents were given a travel warrant to come and see Bill. When the visitors were let in, Bill sat awaiting a show of maternal affection, but his mother’s first words were “where’s Kenny?” Poor Bill, Ken said, after telling that story to me.

They were captured by the 12th SS Panzer division Hitlerjuend. The Feldwebel (sergeant) stood Ken to attention, and Ken held his chin up, pushing his shoulders back. The sergeant put his toecaps to Ken’s and stood to attention himself. Around the Feldwebel’s belt hung a small revolver – was this how Ken was going to die, not with a bang, not with a whistle, but with a click? He raised his right hand and placed it on top of his own cap, brought it across to reach Ken’s nose and, turning to the Corporal said “Achtzehn Jahre!” (Eighteen years). He had no idea what he had done to Ken that day, and he never would. They fed the platoon with a thick broth, some meat and brown bread thrown in. The Corporal was given permission to hand out English cigarettes to them as well. Later on, they were given a second helping.

After Erwin Rommel had finished his interrogations they were handed over to the German military. They crammed them onto carriages. The Germans slid the doors open and forced sixty large men and a dustbin in each section of the train. They spent six-and-a-half days pissing and shitting into a bin that often overflowed and covered the men in their own faeces. Each morning the train would stop and three men from each car was forced to dig a hole and bury the contents of the bin and the train would set off again. Thirsty and desperate, they forced cardboard into the grate to collect the rainfall. Everyone in Ken’s car contracted dysentery.

One morning, some days later, The Red Cross interrupted the emptying ritual and asked that the Germans write P.O.W atop their trains so as to discourage an attack. The Germans said “if you want it, you do it.” And a flood of villagers came running down carrying buckets and ladders. Some of the men climbed on to the roof and painted while the women fed every man a cup of milk and bread.

Ken was forced to work the Polish mines, and one Christmas Eve a prisoner began singing ‘Stille Nacht’. The German guard stood and spoke to him.

“Tommy, das ist gute musik” (Tommy, that is good music)

“Ja, is gute musik” (Yes is good music)

“Tommy, das is Deutsche musik” (Tommy, it is German music?)

And with that, the room erupted into ‘Silent Night’, in both English and German. The German motioned to a prisoner to sit, and produced a sandwich. They ate together and told stories of where they lived. Ken was that prisoner. Around Christmas-time they were visited by an African doctor who announced that a ‘political camp’ south of them had fallen victim to an outbreak of typhus. This political camp was Auschwitz. Anne Frank… I said, and Ken slowly nodded, looking sad. He told me she was transferred, but probably contracted Typhus there.

January twenty third. So began the Death March. On this long march they were fed rotten bread and hot water. On the odd occasion, when they passed a village or made camp on a farm, some of the people there would throw bread at the POWs. In return the Germans would fire at them. Ken had no sense of time anymore. He knew he had been travelling on foot for many, many weeks, since they took the back roads and often walked back on themselves.

Ken watched the bustle of the market as they marched through. It reminded him of a time before this, when he and his father would go shopping to feed his family of eight. He limped on. He missed his mother and his siblings. His old life screamed at him. His knee ground in on itself with every step he took until he decided he could not take another, and collapsed in the snow. Had he have been left, he would have frozen to death.

Ted and Jimmy, Ken’s friends on his horrific journey, slowly and carefully edged away from the group, going back to find Ken curled up in the snow. They pulled him to his feet and put one of his arms around each of their shoulders, carrying him along. Ted talked about how he missed fish and chips, and Jimmy talked about how lovely strawberry shortcake with waffles and maple syrup used to be. Ken woke up, and with a new found determination he insisted they let him walk himself.

The last thing he said to me when we were talking was that it had become fashionable to ascribe all the bad things to the Nazis, but that he will never subscribe to this view. “I met very few Nazis; the people who humiliated us, and visibly took delight in doing so, were ordinary Germans. The Nazis I met were sympathetic.”

What Happened After?

            Before Ken left for the war he told his girlfriend, Doris, that he might not come back, and that he couldn’t bear the thought of her waiting for him, so they went their separate ways. On 26th February 1949, Doris and Ken said their vows in St Thomas More Church. As a non-Catholic, Doris had to sign the usual undertaking not to interfere with the practice of Ken’s religion, and to raise their children Catholics. “No one could have outshone her in this.”

Ken often worked late in the evening or attended meetings of one sort or another, so he hardly saw their two sons, Christopher and Jeremy. In the weekday evenings and only briefly at breakfast, their time together was mostly confined to weekends. Doris often warned him he would regret it, and he eventually did, because before he knew it the boys were all grown up and he had missed it.

It fell to Doris to teach the boys their night prayers and ensure they said them, to get them to school, and to get them ready for Mass on a Sunday. “I couldn’t remember her going to her own service once we were married but over the years she came to Mass with us and then with me after the boys married and moved away.”

And despite all the years Ken and Doris spent together, his deepest memories of her were of sitting by their bedside, holding hands and praying together, and giving her Holy Communion each day.

Doris died of cancer just twelve days short of their sixty-second wedding anniversary. “And I am left riddled with the guilt of having left her on her own so often whilst I was out doing things I wanted to do, or out of a sense of duty. I do not pray for Doris, but for her to intercede me.” As Ken looked back on her life he remembered how easily she made friends because of her kind nature. “I do not believe she sinned for she did not know how to – I could have told her if she’d asked.” Ken didn’t need to, she had already lined herself up with the Saints as she was diagnosed on August 24th 2010 – the feast of St Bartholomew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Ken and Doris sat in the small consultants room, the man behind the desk diagnosing her with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And with agonising sorrow, Ken looked at her as she said “Oh well, I’ve had a good life”.

“Doris died on Valentine’s Day and all I could do was watch her go. Rest in Peace my love – I pray we’ll meet again.”

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