COIGACH FOLK

COIGACH'S SACRIFICE IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR


Page 17

APPENDIX B

HECTOR MACKENZIE'S MEMORIES

Hector Donald Mackenzie says :

“The story starts with my father working on the Braemore estate planting trees. I'm not sure where their Bothy was but I do know that most of the social activities took place in the village hall in Inverlael, now recently replaced with a new building . I have in the past met some of his former friends and they spoke of their experiences of parading on Fridays in the Ullapool drill hall. No guns or the like were involved, just marching.

When the call up came the boys were piled into the back of an open lorry. I believe it was hired from the local shopkeeper in Polbain, Donald Macleod. That lorry returned to Polbain and was used in the maintenance of the peat road until the late 1950s. The billet that was used in Dingwall is still there on the Inverness side of town. I got the impression from my father that there were some hijinks thieving each other’s kit and general banter.

In the first few months of the war Dad was burned and had to go to hospital. On his discharge from hospital, he was because of the rapid German advance, unable to join his unit. They had fallen back with the intention of getting out of France towards Dieppe. They didn't get that far and Dad re-joined his unit where they made their last stand at St Valéry. Out of ammunition and surrounded, the Seaforths were hammered by heavy mortars. Forced to surrender my father said that some of the men thought they should have fought to the last man.

I do know that the majority of the men had little faith or respect for their officers. That's hardly surprising as the rank and file separated from their officers were made to march across France through the town of Lille. By this time the general state of the men's health was deteriorating as they had diarrhoea and they were not allowed to get out of line to relieve themselves. Rations were non-existent and Dad said the men would pull the heads off sunflowers and pick up corn to try to ward off the pangs of hunger. Later on in their captivity they were loaded into barges for their trip to Germany. This lasted several days. During the journey Dad described the meagre rations as hard bread and lard. I know the food in the camp was predominantly vegetable based; the protein part came in the form of occasional sausage.

The remainder of the journey was by cattle cars to Poland and internment.”

To fill in some of the details, here are some extracts from tape recordings of Hector made later in his life by his son-in-law Kenny MacDonald.

“We were only in Dingwall about a week, mostly practising marching, and kit inspections. I was still in my kilt and sporran, with long johns with legs cut off to keep me warm. Then overnight to Aldershot by train. We marched to the barracks. No basic training took place in Aldershot, where we stayed for maybe a month. We were issued with full kit, a rifle, and 5 rounds of ammunition.

Then on a train to Portsmouth, and via ferry to Dieppe. On arrival we were ordered to stay on the pier till given orders, but got fed up with this and went into town for a few beers. Back to pier and everybody had gone! Went to the maritime station and caught up with the rest. Marched to Lille on the Belgian border. This took about a day. Practised unarmed combat. In Lille for quite a time. Told to stay in cookhouse to help cook. A petrol stove caught on fire. Both my arms were burnt and I was sent to hospital. From there I was sent to Le Mans. I eventually re-joined the 4th Seaforths in Lille. The Germans were advancing and the retreat from Lille to St Valéry took about one day.

We were handed over in St Valéry, and forced to give up. The following morning I picked up a man who was lying on the ground (the Germans were going to shoot him) and carried him all day. Slept on the ground, the men were alive with lice. Heading east from St Valéry. Hoping to escape but couldn’t because heavily guarded. Back to Lille over several days.

Went to Lamsdorf. There about a year. Wouldn’t volunteer for work. In the end was tricked into moving to a work group building a railway siding, carrying railway lines at Laband. Too heavy to manage so got extra help. Working there for about 2 years. Then sent to a coal mine because I wasn’t working hard enough. About 20/30 men were sent there. Worked at the coal face and filling wagons. Red Cross parcels started arriving. There about two months. Kept pretending I was unfit.

Escaped from the coal mine with 3 others; I had a map and compass which my Irish friend had obtained. Escaped via the adit in the coal mine. We put boot polish on the back of our overalls which had a white E on it. It was moonlight. Got outside the wire of the coal mine. The 4 of us kept going easterly. It started raining, the boot polish got washed off. Going towards Poland. We split up, I stayed with the Irishman. The trouble was I had the wrong map and the Germans had changed the names of Polish towns so not sure where we were. We went for 2 days without sleep, eventually into woods to rest; a wolf came nearby in the middle of the night and woke me up. We had in our satchels chocolate, oatmeal and sugar from Red Cross parcels.

We carried on walking using the compass, following roads. 6 German police were standing at a road junction; we walked past them towards the Polish border. The policemen were watching us. We followed the river up the hill to the border. We had a sleep by a bush, and woke up and saw 4 German jackboots nearby. We shot off over the ridge to the other side. 200 German soldiers were sent after us. Then Polish Underground got us and allowed us to sleep in a loft. I spoke bad Polish, and the locals thought I was Ukrainian. We were given food, and an English speaking Polish man came along. Put onto horse and cart, two Poles and Irish friend and myself. Taken across the hills. The cart stopped at a little village. 

The following day and for the next six months we lived in the woods in an old house. There we were eating good food, and drinking vodka. We lived in luxury. We got money from the bank in the town. We eventually decided to head on and got to Krakov. We had no change of clothes, and were still wearing the overalls underneath our khaki uniforms. We started walking through forest, and still heard wolves at night. Walking south, didn’t know whether we were in Germany or Poland. I still had the compass. The ground was sandy soil, like a beach, but hundreds of miles inland. We sat down by the river Vistula at Krakov. A civilian Polish man said “don’t go near the water.” Germans were watching the river. Ukrainian guards were on the bridge over the river. We decided to go straight to the bridge and say who we were and want to cross. Went to get my Irish friend (I had said 10 of us were there). We went back to the town and asked for police station because we couldn’t cross the river. The Underground people said the police in Krakov were OK. We had a lump of pork which we had been given and were asked if it had been pinched. We said we had just found it. Went to a prison. The following day we were interrogated whilst dressed in British Uniform; the navy blue overalls had been given away. We were sent to army prison for a fortnight.

Then sent back by train to the camp from which we had escaped. It took two days. Then interrogated again. We said if we go down the mine again, we will escape again. So then in the coal mine, working on the top. I had this special guard. Then sent back to Lamsdorf for punishment. I was up at 6.00 and made to run around the compound for much of the day. This lasted for 2 weeks. Then back to the coal mine, taking slag to the slagheaps. I was there for six months.

The Russians were advancing from the east by this time. The Germans started moving us out, marching to the north-west. It was sheer madness to try to escape. We were out in the open, in cold wintry weather. We slept in a barn. The guards left us on our own. An Englishman called Curly and I left our boots on and we escaped. We weren’t worried at all. We walked towards the east. We found a little village. Spoke to villagers. No soldiers there. Some had thrown their uniforms away, now civilians. There about a week. Slept in an empty school house, abandoned. No blankets. Wearing uniforms. A young boy got us some food, but I didn’t trust him. One tank came into the village. This was the first time I saw metal burning. German Stukas had bombed it. The schoolhouse was virtually knocked down. Australian and NZ escapees also in the schoolhouse. I knew them, had worked with them before.

Next day the Russians came in. We were told to go along with them. Taken back to the coal mine, stayed outside. Slept in stables for the night. Then started marching again eastwards. Some food, not an awful lot. Marching quite a lot, then in goods trains, very cold. It took two days. Reached Krakov for the second time; Russians didn’t do any damage to Krakov. We lived in the train carriages about a month, very cold. We could walk about if wanted to. After that the train started moving east, stopped at villages for a day or two, making way for the troops, clearing the line for other trains.

We were heading for the Black Sea, Odessa. There for 2 days. Across Black Sea to Port Said, Egypt on the ‘Highland Princess’. Conditions on the boat, we slept on the floor, cold. Mostly prisoners on board. In Port Said a couple of days. A mixed crowd on the ship, Australians, New Zealanders who had been prisoners. We sailed past Malta, up the west coast of Italy to Naples, past Gibraltar, up the Portuguese coast. It was fortunately calm. To Liverpool, then sent south. I had no idea who was in charge on the ship. Eventually went north to be demobilised. Then, of course I was free to wander about in Glasgow …..

Hector’s son, Hector Donald Mackenzie has stated :

“He did however form lasting friendships. In the 1990s Dad went to Jersey to meet up with the Irishman he escaped with from the mine. He mentions this in the tapes. As a young boy I remember men visiting and they would chat about their experiences and show photos. Some of the photos were of theatre productions or just of young men in various uniforms. There were photos of Dad in uniform and as a prisoner of war. They have been given to our relations in Canada or New Zealand . I think my cousin has a photo of him in a Cossack type hat. My brother has a wooden spoon that my father had his first meal with after escaping and meeting up with the Poles. Dad spoke fluent German and Polish. He had a great respect for the Polish folk.

What is not in the tapes is the account of Dad’s Sister Agnes (Annie) who after the news of St Valéry walked every day from Polbain to the post office in Achiltibuie, hoping to get news if he had survived . There were no phones in the Polbain.”

Return to Contents


Continued in page 18

Terms & Conditions     © Ross and Cromarty Heritage