Miranda del Ebro

After crossing the Pyrenees from Banyuls-dels-Aspres the night of 7/8 September 1941, Peter Janes' party of six were arrested and sent first to Figueras, then Barcelona and Saragossa prisons before transfer to the Spanish campo de concentracion at Miranda del Ebro near Burgos.
Early on Monday morning [15 September] we were taken and put on the train for the last time because now our destination was Miranda. This time the journey was not long and we got to the station at Miranda soon after four o'clock in the afternoon.
The prison, it is really a concentration camp, is about a mile from the station and we walked along the permanent way to get to it. Our impression of the place was a good one, the entrance was through an ornamental archway and on the right was a very modern swimming pool while the buildings all looked clean and well looked after. The Commandant of the place made us laugh by asking if we had 'any revolvers, automatic pistols or grenades' when to have got a safety razor blade as far as this would have been darned clever. At the gate several fellows asked if we were British and on receiving an affirmative lost interest in us. We had a good deal of formalities to go through before we were at last shown to our new home, Hut No 23.
As soon as the two Gerona boys [two escapers who joined the group at Figueras prison after transfer from Gerona] got inside they were greeted by the shout "Fucking hell, I know those two cunts" from chaps whom they had known in the Fort St Hippolyte. We were issued with two blankets, a plate and spoon and left to find ourselves a home. There were at the time about thirty Britishers there of whom roughly two thirds were military figures which did not vary a lot during our stay. I got a place next to a civilian whose name was George Merrit and with whom I got on reasonably well. There were several others in the same hut, Doolan and [Gilbert] Candelier whose nationalities I do not know to this day but they both seemed to have served in the French Army, Mr Marshall and Mr Oakley, both of whom came to Gibraltar later on.
At first it was a relief to get to this place, the weather was very warm during the day but cold at night which can be explained by the fact that the Campo is high up in the mountains and surrounded by them. We soon collected extra blankets and plates but got a shock of an unpleasant nature on the second day when we were drafted into a potato peeling squad which worked seven hours a day. About 30 or 40 men sat in a hut with a long heap of potatoes in front of them and peeled them with a very crude instrument which consisted of a piece of zinc nailed to a short stick. It was heart-breaking work and raised blisters on our hands and in return we were allowed the privilege of buying a sandwich of bread and fish for one peseta (6d). The food was not bad, one could have lived on it but it was very monotonous, a watery sort of potato soup most days, at 12 and 6 and a cup of quite good coffee in the morning. We also got a bread ration of about 125 grammes (about four ounces). Also about twice a week we got fish and once a week a ration of wine, which was of quite good quality. Also every week or so a representative of the Military Attaché in Madrid brought us food and money (50 pesetas, about 24/-) and clothes, and while we were there we had good blankets issued out to us.
Note that in those pre-decimal days the English pound was made up of 240 pennies with 12 pennies to the shilling hence 12/6 was 12 shillings and 6d (pence) - the equivalent of 62.5 new pence.
There were representatives of every nation there, including a number of Germans who, in spite of the fact that they had no income always seemed to have plenty of money. Among what we called the Consul's rations was tea, sugar and milk, a good deal of tea but not much of the other two, milk in particular often being only one tin for four men for a week. Bully beef and tinned herrings were usually a tin each and two tins of Maconochies and four packets of biscuits completed the ration.
From the first I took on making tea as my job, sometimes over someone else's fire, sometimes making one of my own and often going over and bribing the carpenter to let me use some of his as it was going always. It ran to about two cups each day but the last couple of days we had to drink it 'sans sucre ou lait'.
Each morning we got up at about eight and lined up for a tin of coffee, which surprisingly was real coffee and of good quality and then had to form up for the ceremony of saluting the flag. Everyone had to stand in his company and face the flagstaff and then the band struck up and each man had to raise his right hand in the Fascist salute. Failure to do it meant getting a bashing up in the calabozo [solitary confinement]. Then each man received a small pink ticket with which to get his bread, any of them that worked were called out and lastly any whom they wanted to inoculate. This business of filling us up with needles was a bad one, most of the prisoners got from five to eight in the first month and some of them were really painful. There was only one water tap for two thousand men and the result was an enormous amount of skin disease of all sorts. There was also a lot of venereal disease, especially syphilis but most of the known cases were in a separate place. There were about forty-five to fifty nationalities in the camp, every European nation was represented except Ireland, for some obscure reason these were absent. Most of the Poles and Czechs who wanted to get out put themselves down as Canadians, the number of Canadians was phenomenal. In all there was an average of thirty Britishers all the time I was there, they came in in batches of five or six and went out in tens or so every fortnight. One day we had two lads come in who said that they were British and we found out that they came from the Kings Regiment at Gibraltar and were in fact deserters. Both spoke good Spanish and we found out later that they had served in the Spanish War but not on which side they were. There were a lot of birds who had been in that mucky affair, most of them on the Government's side.
There was a canteen in the grounds at which we could buy many things, all of them dear but not really excessively so. Good Malaga wine could be had for eight pesetas (4/-) a litre, red wine 3ps (1/6) and apples at 2ps a lb., onions the same and tins of fruit, peaches, apricots and pears (3.5 - 4ps = 1/9 - 2/-). There was also tins of tunny fish and octopus and sometimes sardines but not often. We could also get cognac and anisette from various people in the place at about 25ps (12/6) a bottle. Personally I was drunk about every ten days but some of the lads made it twice a week, while others like Arthur and Wilkinson never did get drunk. The cognac was real bad but it did have the desired effect, that is to say it made us forget our troubles and most other things as well.
At first I was put onto potato peeling but soon got myself transferred to 'stones' which was really a variety of jobs, sometimes carrying stones, sometimes sweeping the parade ground, once it was carrying tiles up to the top of the roof, a job at which I excelled but nearly broke my neck at all the same. One day we were taken down to the river for a swim. The river is not a very big one at this time of the year and the bed is full of huge rocks, also all of the sewage from the camp drained into it, which discouraged most of them from going into it. But I had a good swim above the discharge pipe and felt a good deal better for it. It was also possible to have a shower bath some days, one had to get a little ticket from the doctor for it and almost the only regular visitors were the British and Poles, rarely if ever did we see a Spaniard there although they were the predominating race in view of numbers.
Behind the barracks was a huge pile of wood which we took to make our fires. One day I pinched a big pail and knocked holes in it and made a very good brazier of it. It roared like a furnace and gave out a phenomenal amount of heat. Sometimes five fellows would be working round it at one time and we burned wood as thick as our legs in it. As the weather got colder we had it in the barrack more and more, often burning piles of wood to make a bucket-full of ashes. We made tea and toast, soup and omelettes, boiled eggs and Lord knows what over that stove. There were others but none of comparable size to mine. Another stunt was to heat up litres of wine to go to bed with. Towards the end of my stay we had a gang of interesting people come in, the most interesting being the Newton Brothers who I believe act on the stage under the name of the Bourne (sic) Brothers. They were full of stories, dozens of them, some very good. They appear to be tap dancers and acrobatic dancers but I would not swear to their nationalities or even if they are brothers The amount of stories that we told each other at this place would make half a dozen good novels. The Battles of Belgium and Sedan, Abbeville, Dieppe, Calais, Dunkerque, the Somme and St Valery were fought and re-fought, especially St Valery en Caux because nearly all of us had been in it. We wrote home but no-one ever got any answers so after a time we lost interest.
Brothers Henry and Alfred Newton were well known on the continent as the "Boorn Brothers", travelling acrobats in a variety troupe. They were on their way to England where they joined SOE.
Three letters written at weekly intervals to his mother were carefully preserved by her in their original envelopes. The first one was sent about 18 September and arrived on the 21 October but her return letter dated 22 October did not reach Burgos until 5 December and was returned to her marked 'Gone Away'.
Life was not too bad at this place, mainly because we all expected to soon be out of it. There were a lot of Germans there, most of them really nice fellows and one day the Gestapo came and asked if any of them would like to be repatriated. Only eight out of a hundred volunteered, so about five days later they took away by armed guard all those who were not Jews. Gardner and Merrit raised a laugh by going up as volunteers and asking to be sent back to England which made the Gestapo boys mad. It was all the guards could do to stop us from stoning the bastards out of the gates.
On Thursday morning [23rd October 1941] I heard for the first time that I was to be released for certain although I had known it for more or less certain for four days, together with Fraser, Wilkinson, Gardner, Williamson, McLaren, John Love [Rudolf Ptacek] and George Brown (Henryk Stachura) and the two Gibraltar boys Handly and Williamson and the little bomber pilot Herbert. We had drawn rations and money on Tuesday and so I sold all of my spare rations to the Germans in 23. Waited all day Saturday but no news came but we did not bother because we did not expect to go before Monday anyway. I was imaginero, that is to say night watchman for Saturday night and could not get drunk but promised myself that I would on Sunday night. The two boys who deserted for Gibraltar have adopted one of the camp's several dogs, a splendid young Alsation of about five months and they lift him up to the top staging about five or six times in the night. One of them is a real black sheep but it is hard not to like him because he is so full of life. I have been practising making a distinctive signature much after the style of the few Spaniards who can write and it took about five hundred repetitions to get it more or less uniform.
Marshall kept us interested practically all of Friday night by telling of his travels in Europe. It appears that he is a gentleman's servant of some description and although he speaks no language but his own has travelled over most of Europe. He told me of getting stranded at Basle and not knowing a word of French, German or any other useful language and he was walking the platform cursing and blinding in fluent Anglo Saxon when a small ragged boy of fifteen or sixteen came up and asked him in precise English "Excuse me sir, but may I be of assistance to you". This lad, who despite his poverty spoke three languages perfectly was eventually successful in saving Marshall 830 marks in Customs duties. When Marshall asked him if he was hungry he insisted upon going home and changing his suit before he went into a restaurant with him. When he went away he said "I hope sir that, should it happen that I have been of assistance to you that you will utilise my services again should you or your friends do us the honour of visiting Basle again". Then the station master asked him to dinner and introduced him to his wife who was a Sheffield girl. It appears that the SM was a German prisoner of war and while in a prison camp at Sheffield he met this girl and falling in love with her came back again after his repatriation and married her. The story of M then went about how he was with his employer in South of France when the war was on and they stayed on until after the invasion of the Low Countries when his boss died and Marshall was unsuccessful in getting place on what became known as Somerset Maugham's boat and stayed on. He explained that each Englishman drew ten pounds a month from the American Consulate and they lived a good life of frugal but none the less real luxury. They had good hotels at very low prices at first, some of them lived on some of the many luxury yachts that lay off the coast and nearly every one had his own special girl because money was so scarce among the French people. This is understandable because the tourist traffic has always been a very considerable help to the people of the French Riviera. Then after trying hard to get his papers put right enough to get home, and after that trying to get false ones, he came over the mountains and was caught after spending several weeks as the guest of the British Consul in Barcelona. He was told that he would be fined four hundred pesetas, about eight pounds, and released but at the time of speaking he had been in various prisons for ten weeks.
Well I did my night as watchman during which I put down a folded blanket to sit on and when I left it for ten minutes I found the dog which has already been mentioned fast asleep on it. Later on however he woke up for just enough time to eat up my day's bread ration before getting down again. On Sunday I began systematically to get drunk to such an extent that by bandero in the evening I had to be held up to avoid falling down.
On Monday forty-eight pesetas went for the purchase of booze ranging from bad cognac to good Malaga. This is slightly more than a pound in English currency. I borrowed five hundred pesetas from a fellow to be repaid by £7 in England. He sold a good few French francs for pesetas and had nearly two thousand which he hoped to be able to change. Well by Monday night not only myself but nearly all the released men were in a very bad state of intoxication. The two Gibraltar boys who are listed as deserters got to fighting and I got out of bed with a champagne bottle in my hand and offered to put the pair of them to bed. When the Silencio sounded, that is to say time at which everyone had to be in bed, we all stood up, faced the tiny Union Jack and sang 'God Save the King'. Our efforts to sing the 'Marseillaise' were foiled by the arrival of an officer and two sentries who threatened to shoot the first man who sang another note of it so we sang 'Madelon' instead.
In the morning my head was like nothing on God's earth, but fixed up everything that I could remember, gave the carpenter ten pesetas and the old cabbo a new bottle of red wine. Then the mattress and the cupboard were sold for five each and at long last after handing in plates, spoons and blankets we set off to the gate. John was with us, that is the Czechoslovakian pilot [Ptacek]. That meant that with the exception of Crowley-Milling who was in a hospital in Madrid with typhus, and the other Polish pilot [Petrasiak] who is in the Embassy, all of us were together just as we came from Bethune station.
While the rest of the party went on to Spain, Adolphe Pietrasiak stayed in Marseille and had his ankle treated by Dr Rodocanichi. He eventually joined another party which included F/Lt Winskill, Sgt McKee, Dvr Strachan and Pte Clarke and crossed into Andorra. He was taken to the British Consulate in Barcelona and then on to Madrid by car where he rejoined the original group.
As soon as we got into the town of Miranda the driver stopped at a café and bought us each a cup of bad coffee and a raw bacon sandwich. Then we found we could buy cognac and the driver had a bad half an hour getting us into the ambulance. He was as bad a driver as he was a psychologist and we had to tell him that every single one of us could drive and that it was a matter of complete indifference as to whether we went to Madrid with him or without him. He would not go at more than forty kilometres an hour and we got fed up with him. We got stopped once by Guardia Civile and it was long after dark when we got to Madrid.
From the diaries and journals of Peter Janes as published in the book Conscript Heroes. This excerpt was written at Gibraltar whilst awaiting transport back to the UK