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Tuesday, 16 November, 1999, 15:40 GMT
Enslaved by the Nazis

A harrowing scene from a concentration camp

Being forced to work by his Nazi captors was a double injustice for Leslie Allan.

As a stretcher-bearer, and therefore a non-combatant, he could expect a heightened degree of protection under the Geneva Convention's rules for prisoners of war.

The international protocol states that medical personnel must either be returned to their own side or put to work in a medical role.

Instead, Mr Allan endured five years of crippling hard labour under the Germans. His work was unpaid, the hours were always long, and the conditions sometimes so harsh his life was at risk.

Like the group of ex-servicemen currently seeking payment from the German government for being made to work during wartime, he also wants compensation.

British servicemen at the Oflag 17 camp in Brunswick, Germany
Mr Allan, now 88, was serving with the First Bucks Battalion of the Oxon and Bucks Light Infantry when he was captured by the Germans in the spring of 1940 in France.

The 19-year-old was taken to a field hospital and stripped of the documentation which identified him as a medic.

"I was unconscious at the time it was taken from me. I don't know what happened to it but it was never returned," says Mr Allan, a representative of the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association.

Taken by cattle truck to Torun, in eastern Poland, he was housed in the Nazi PoW camp Stalag 20A and immediately forced into work, cutting ice blocks from the nearby River Wisla.

By now it was winter 1941 and, with temperatures averaging between minus 20 and 25 degrees, the river had frozen over. Working from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, the prisoners started each day by smashing a hole in the ice.

Watched over

Watched at a distance by an armed German guard - roughly one per 10 workers - each man would cut blocks about 2ft square.

"We had one those double-ended tree saws. They had taken the handle off one end and replaced it with a heavy lead weight. You pulled the saw up and let the weight drag it back down.

British servicemen in action WWII
"The main purpose, we were told, was to give German officers ice in their drinks in the summer."

Kitted out in wooden Dutch clogs and a rag-tag collection of any other clothing, they constantly had to guard against the biting cold.

"It was so cold there was a perpetual battle against frostbite. You watched each other to make sure others' ears didn't go white. I got a bit of frost bite in my right foot, although it wasn't all that bad.

"You had to be careful not to fall in, otherwise you were a goner.

"If you were sitting back to take a breather for an excessive time, [the guard] would point a rifle at you."

He often reminded the German officers of his status as a medic, but to no avail.

After about four months Mr Allan was moved to camp Stalag 20B, still in Poland, where he worked in a sugar beet factory. Again the work was long - 12 hours a day and 18 hours straight at the weekend - physical and wearing, but this time because of the overbearing heat.

"It was so hot you had to strip off to the waist."

Until late 1944, Mr Allan alternated between working in the factory and as a labourer on a nearby sugar beet farm.

Slave labour

"I never got any money for my work and never any compensation. Make no mistake, we were slaves. In my case it was doubly wrong."

In December 1944 he and hundreds of other PoWs were marched in front of the advancing Soviet forces, from Köningsberg to Hanover. The walk, estimated by Mr Allan at 1,000 miles, was undertaken in the thick of a hostile central European winter.

It became known as the March of Death. Many men died on the way, says Mr Allan, who suffered several broken bones in his foot as a result of his earlier frost-bite.

Almost 60 years on, the hunger for recognition and recompense is still strong.

The compensation issue "rankles with all PoWs. It's a cause of dismay to 99% of them".
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See also:
16 Nov 99 |  UK
UK PoWs seek Nazi compensation
15 Nov 99 |  Europe
Stakes rise in Nazi compensation row
04 Nov 99 |  Americas
US ponders Nazi slave compensation
08 Oct 99 |  Wales
'Nazi slave' seeks compensation
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