Cindy “met” Peter Hoentsch through email while conducting research into the history of the Harperley POW Camp. They have since become good friends and Peter has shared many of his memories about his time as a radio operator for German naval forces and his experiences as a prisoner at Harperley. What follows is his story, most of which is in Peter’s own words.
~ Peter’s Story ~
Peter was born in 1925 and grew up on a large farm near Dresden, Saxony, where his parents were lodgers in the loft above the stable. From 1917 until his discharge in 1929 Peter’s father, Arthur Hoentsch, was in the cavalry.
In the spring of 1932, at the age of 7 years, Peter began attending the village school. In 1933 Hitler appointed Bernhard Rust as Minister for Education. Rust, a former schoolteacher, had been fired years previously for immoral conduct with a young school girl. So, at the age of 8 years old Peter and his fellow school mates were being indoctrinated into the Nazi Ideology. Like most of his contemporaries Peter grew up with an enthusiasm for Hitler’s visions of a perfect Aryan race.
In 1941 Peter, a young man of 16 years, was now a qualified mechanic and so he decided to join the Navy. He was sent to Belgium and then later to the Atlantic coast. In 1944 he found himself in Dieppe, France, at the age of 19. The Allied invasion of France was just beginning. Below is an excerpt from Peter’s book about his experience as a young radio operator during the invasion of France…
“…My mother kissed me on both cheeks and said “I’ve put an apple and some bread and jam sandwiches in your haversack to eat on your train journey to Dieppe in Northern France and don’t forget to send me a postcard when you land.” Dieppe was the place where I was posted for a few weeks training as a junior radio operative. The year was 1944 and the allied invasion of France had begun with a vengeance. Overhead could be heard the roar from a flight of American Mustang Fighter Planes which had flown in low strafing the harbour, and anything that moved, with bullets. They had come in so fast that the warning siren hadn’t time to sound. The flames from the tracer bullets could be clearly seen by me as they ricochet off our concrete reinforced defenses.”
So, Peter arrived in France and within weeks found himself under attack from Allied forces who were pounding the area every day for weeks. It must have been a very frightening time for him. Again in Peter’s own words, is a further account of that time, when he was stationed at his last posting at Wimereux, France…
“…This certainly was a poor start to my career as a young naval radio operator who’d only been in uniform for a few weeks, having to dive for cover into the nearest sandbagged air raid shelter for safety as I wished to continue my career. I’d just made it when I heard a muffled sounding ‘whump’ as two 1,000 pound bombs released by one of the planes exploded bringing down a mass of plaster and white wash from the ceiling covering my nice new uniform in snow-like dust and debris. We radio operatives had known for weeks that an invasion was soon to happen as we intercepted the Allied radio messages. We did not know the date when it would begin. Soon the Allied forces had advanced into our area and we were surrounded.”
The photo below is of a Dombunker at Wimereux, France, which would have been a familiar sight to Peter. This was a protected shelter for special railway artillery.
During this time Peter’s brother Waldemar was already a prisoner being held by the Russians and their father Arthur was serving at the V-2 Plant at Peenemunde, Germany. The V-2 was the first unmanned guided ballistic missile. This weapon of war was faster than the speed of sound and gave off no audible warning upon approach. It impacted at three times the speed of sound, which means that it fell to Earth with an impact speed of 3,240 to 3,600 km/h. Below is a photo of the V-2.
Peter’s story from above continues, and the time frame is September of 1944…
“…My Naval Commanding Officer gave all the young radio operators his last order to try to find our own way back home.”
Below is a photo of Adalbert von Blanc, Peter’s Naval Commanding Officer, the man who left a bunch of frightened young men to try and find their own way back home. This proved to be an impossible task as Peter and his comrades found themselves constantly under attack by both Allied troops and Partisan fighters in the area.
On the 10th of September 1944 the Canadian 1st Army invaded Wimereux, France and Peter was captured along with his fellow radio operators. Here is the story of his capture, in his own words…
“…It wasn’t long before I saw strange uniformed soldiers with strange sounding accents and, being a good swimmer, I dived into the harbour to make my escape to the other side. A warning shot from a rifle hit the water just in front of me or at least I hope it had been a warning shot! Then I heard a call from a soldier with a Canadian accent, “Come out of the water you dopey German sailor (or words to that effect) for you the war’s now over.” “
After a month of imprisonment in France Peter found himself on a ship and crossing the Channel to England. Here is Peter’s account…
“…Some time later I crossed the English Channel on a leaking landing craft and this German seafaring man entered the British harbour of Portsmouth in thick fog which excluded my view of the famous White Cliffs of Dover which I’d heard so much about on the radio and sung in a song by Vera Lynn. By the hell, when I placed my feet on that island I had a strange funny feeling in my stomach, and I wondered…”Where do I go from here?” “
For Peter this would have been an unsettling experience. Since the age of 8 years he had been taught to hate the British people through Hitler’s program of Nazi indoctrination.
Peter was sent from Portsmouth to a POW Hospital in Chepstow. After he regained his health his was sent to another camp. However, there seems to be some confusion. Peter states that he was next sent to Camp 54 near Chepstow. I’m assuming that this was the camp known as “The Mount.” The problem here is that “The Mount” was actually Camp 197, while Camp 54 was the Longbridge Camp in Worcestershire. Since Peter states that the camp he was moved to was “near” Chepstow he could very well have meant the camp in Worcestershire.
Here is Peter’s description of what it was like at Camp 54 / Camp 197…
“…After I left hospital healthy and fit I was ordered into another POW Camp 54 near Chepstow. Everything in there was OK. You only had to mention that you were a prisoner, a captured enemy! My palliasse in hut one was freshly filled with redolent straw. Hut one was just about five yards behind the barbed wire which fenced off the camp…The winter was now gone and all the inhabitants were running rabbit-like around the compound gasping for fresh air with the first sunshine of the Spring. It was also the chance to open doors and windows to rid the hut of the unpleasant smells accumulated during the winter! The Spring was splendid that year. I remember well the welcome peace of March with its warm sunny days. Most of us prisoners dragged our palliasses out to the meadow where we roasted the whole day long in the sun.”
Sometime during the Summer Peter and his comrades in Hut One tried to escape by digging a tunnel from the hut to the other side of the barbed wire fence. However, before they could finish they were discovered by the camp guards. At was at this time that Peter was moved to Camp 83, known as Eden Camp in Yorkshire. For about a months time Peter worked for a farmer who had previously been a British soldier stationed in Berlin, Germany. Peter would next find himself sent to Camp 93, otherwise known as Harperley.
By this time Peter was quickly losing his belief in the Nazi Ideology that he had been indoctrinated in from a young age. Here is Peter’s description of his change in thought towards the British people, who until recently had been his
“…I had smelt and lived the reality of the war and experienced the enemies I had hated like many German people. My Hitler Ideology broke more and more down when I got in friendship with British soldiers and civilians. Their behaviour was contrary of what the Nazi propaganda told us German injected. Three and a half years at the Harperley Camp No. 93 and the General Hospital in Bishop Auckland was enough time to change my mind in a radical way, therefore when I was repatriated in 1948 to the Russian Zone I felt I was losing my second Home, my youth and many friends.”
Peter found Harperley, in Fir Tree, Durham, to be a beautiful place full of nature and fresh air with plenty of work on the local farms. During his time here he formed many lasting friendships with local British civilians that he has maintained to the present day.
Harperley Camp No. 93 had its own something rare for a camp, a theater with stage, and it was a popular gathering place for the prisoners. In here they could watch an operetta, listen to a concert or watch a funny stage play put on by fellow prisoners.
Peter remembers the night when world-famous violinist Helmut Zacharius put on a special, unannounced concert for the prisoners. Here are Peter’s words describing this event…
“…I remember definite a violin concert given by Helmut Zacharias, what was later in Germany an excellent violinist and was called “Zacharias with its enchanted violin”. I remember, the theatre was scanty lighted, the curtain closed when behind the curtain begun a violin playing “Symphony”, melodic and slow. We felt a bit lonely and until the curtain was opening. He was dived in dazzling light while the background was in placid red. The orchestra accompanied the violin softly. I don’t know any more what else was plaid. Most of us had to fight with your mood. We younger boys didn’t need a long time but the elderly and married comrades had to dry their eyes. ”
Peter also describes briefly the types of plays that were performed by fellow prisoners…
“…The theatre was every time good visited as we were nearly 1.000 comrades. I remember about some sketches mostly with a theme like driving home, funny camp life and so. I went once for an operetta, but don’t ask me about the title.”
Since his repatriation in 1948 Peter has come back for a number of visits to the Bishop Auckland / Harperley area, where he reunited with old friends. He also re-visited Eden Camp where he did a book signing. Peter currently lives in Germany with his wife and their family.
Peter has written a booklet about his experiences as a POW in England, and he kindly provided Cindy with a number of copies.