German POW Peter recounts gaining festive freedom in Royston after Second World War
- Credit: Archant
Starting out in an unfamilar town is difficult at the best of times, but for one man – a German who had come to Royston after been captured in the Second World War – being granted freedom in the town at Christmas sparked a host of events that changed his life forever.
It’s 1946, the year after the Allies declared victory in Europe. As many as 400,000 German prisoners of war remained in Britain after the fighting ended, with 300 based on Therfield Heath.
Ernst-Wilhelm Peters, known as Peter, was a prisoner of war at the heath’s Camp 29 for around six months, only being let out to work on farms.
The now 91-year-old recalls his arrived in the town on a train from Scotland: “I didn’t know where we were and asked a railway worker in my schoolboy English for the name of the place – ‘Royston’, he replied.
“I wasn’t any the wiser, but little did I know that this small town would be the beginning of a complete change of life for me.”
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Every morning at 8am, prisoners assembled outside the camp gate to wait for the lorries that would take them to work on farms in the villages surrounding Royston to help with the harvest, ditching, hedging, spreading dung and more.
Peter told the Crow: “We were really needed by agriculture, as a great number of British workers were still in the armed forces.
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“On the whole, we were treated very well. Some farmers were better then others and we very often had some milk and potatoes given to us.
“We would be driven back to camp in the evenings. The only snag was that we were behind the wire, and could only observe ordinary life from there.”
Peter’s English improved tremendously throughout his time working on farms, but he hadn’t been free to roam about until Boxing Day 1946.
He said: “We had a very pleasant surprise when Major Shaw allowed us to go to town for a few hours – limited freedom at last!
“A friend and I donned our best uniforms, and walked through the gate without being stopped by the sentry.
“It didn’t take us very long to arrive at The Cross, and then something wonderful happened. We saw an elderly gentleman in High Street – whose name we later learned was Jim Course – dapperly dressed coming towards us.
“He smiled and said: ‘frohe Weihnachten’ – which means merry Christmas.
“Just imagine our surprise! He said he learned German as a youth working in our country, he then invited us for a cup of tea.”
During the heavy snowfall, Peter was tasked with clearing the roads. One day he injured his hand and had to go into a Royston pharmacy.
He was worried, but said he needn’t have been, as the chemist Mr Stern cleaned the wound and applied a dressing.
He said: “I was amazed by his kindness and could only mumble a heavily accented ‘zank you’. This was another example to me of Roystonian kindness, I was beginning to like this town.”
Peter went to the annual fair in the summer of 1947, after being dragged along by a fellow prisoner to join him as an interpreter on his date with a English girl before his 10pm curfew.
The girl brought along her friend Edna – who Peter recognised as the young lady who caught his attention every day when she passed camp on her way to work.
Peter said: “I got into a conversation with Edna, but was interrupted to provide English words for this and that.
“Edna and I talked about all sorts, although she said that she did not like Germans, which was understandable.
“We developed a very warm beautiful friendship, blossoming into love – there was no looking back.”
Peter – who had by then been fully released was living and working at a farm in Wendy – married Edna at the nearby Croydon parish church at Christmas 1948.
He said: “We had a very small wedding, six people in all not counting the Vicar, We were Mr and Mrs Peters at last.”
Peter and Edna had daughter Elizabeth and they lived briefly in Bassingbourn, before he trained as a nurse in Arlesey and Hitchin.
They eventually moved to Devon to be near Elizabeth, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He said: “Edna, my lovely Royston girl passed away this year, leaving me with happy memories of 70 years of togetherness, and of our little town in Hertfordshire.”