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 May 2010 - Nr. 5

German war veteran Fritz Skeries:
“I enlisted and two years later the war was on.”

by Evert Akkerman

In celebrating the 65th Anniversary of the Liberation of Holland by Canadian and Allied Forces, De Nederlandse COURANT is publishing interviews with a number of war veterans that participated in the Liberation. With this exception: an interview with a German war veteran who was taken prisoner-of-war by the Dutch Army on May 10, 1940, which reflects the efforts of the Dutch Armed Forces and highlights the relatively unknown fact that The Netherlands took German POWs and was able to ship them out to England.

By publishing veterans’ stories, we acknowledge what they sacrificed, if not by losing their lives, then at least by being away from home for years. Helene Schramek, President of the German Canadian Remembrance Society and Ernst Friedel, President of the German Canadian Congress, were instrumental in arranging a meeting with German Air Force veteran Fritz W. Skeries. He was shot down over The Netherlands on May 10, 1940, spent the remainder of the Second World War as a POW in Canada and returned in 1951 as a skilled immigrant. De Nederlandse COURANT interviewed the 90-year-old veteran at his home in London, Ontario.

Fritz Skeries was born in Insterburg in East Prussia, Germany. He enlisted in the German Air Force in 1937, becoming part of a Versuchsabteilung, an experimental unit, where he trained to become an officer. His unit was first deployed in October, 1938 as part of the Erste Fallschirm (paratrooper) Regiment, when Sudetenland was relegated to Germany by Britain and France. In 1939, Skeries’ unit was dispatched to Prague, when Czechoslovakia was invaded by Germany.

EA: “Where did you go after your unit had been in Prague?

FS: “Back to Germany. We only spent a couple of weeks in Prague, if that. We were sort of a test unit, the first to arrive in Prague at 6:30 in the morning and we left after the troops arrived. I was then assigned to the Reichskanzlei. It was a combination of duties, mainly security.”

EA: “Where were you sent next?”

FS: “The war started in 1939. From Breslau in Silesia we went into Poland, on trucks and motorcycles. The strange thing is, we were there for four weeks and didn’t fire one shot. Our unit was actually the first to cross the river Vistula. We were a special unit and weren’t supposed to cross, but we did before anybody even thought of it. Polish people came up and saw us. They almost started to cry. They’d fled from the Russians, who came in from the East. After Poland, we went to Stavanger, Norway in March of 1940. We arrived just hours before the English wanted to execute a landing. We got there a few hours too early for them. From Stavanger we flew to Narvik to supply our forces there. I came back from Norway at the end of March and went to Stendhal.”

EA: “What was your next assignment?”

FS: “I was in Dortmund when the war in the West started on May 10, 1940. Holland was our destination. Our mission was to bring paratroopers over to Dordrecht to capture the bridge over the river Maas and keep it open for the panzers and whatever came later on. On this mission on May 10th, around 7 or 8 a.m., our plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and went down. I was in the back of the Junker, in the rear cockpit, to signal with a flag to the other planes to get ready to jump. Sitting down on my chute, I fastened my belts – something we hardly ever did. This time it saved my life. When the plane got hit, it exploded and I was thrown out of the plane with my chute on. I was the only one who survived.”

EA: “What happened when you landed?”

FS: “I landed near the railroad station in Dordrecht and saw a group of paratroopers trying to find their way to the Maas River bridge. On the way there, I spotted our commanding officer, Leutnant Freiherr Von Brandis, standing in the doorway of a house. When I ran over to him to get some info, he yelled at me to take cover because there was lots of gunfire. When I reached him, we exchanged a few words and then he got shot right in the head – I couldn’t believe it. He had captured the Sola Airfield during the Norwegian operation.”

EA: “When were you taken prisoner?”

FS: “Hours later, the Dutch got me. With some other captured soldiers they put us on a river boat to bring us to the harbour, where we were transferred to an old East Indian freighter loaded with bales of tea. This boat tried to leave the harbour to cross the North Sea and reach Dover in England on the other side, but was stopped by German planes and forced back to the harbour – only to be spotted by an English ship, which escorted the freighter to Dover. When we arrived there, we and the crew were taken off. From Dover we went to London and after a few days we were on our way to Oldham, near Manchester. In July or August we were brought to Liverpool to board the Duchess of York, a passenger ship of the Cunard Line. This was the first shipment of German POWs that left England for Canada. We were put in first class cabins and had our meals in the officers’ mess. One of our civilian internees was the Captain of the liner Bremen or the Hanseatic. He knew the Captain of the Duchess of York; maybe that was the explanation for the excellent treatment we received on board. The Captain called us to the officers’ mess for supper and said that we were his guests and guests of the Queen of England.”

EA: “How was the voyage across the Atlantic?”

FS: “There were a couple of disturbing incidents on that trip: somehow the idea came up to take over the boat and sail it back to Germany or somewhere else. There were enough POWs from captured U-boats on board to handle that ship. But it never happened. The Captain of the Duchess of York must have heard about it. He spoke to us about it when we were in the dining room and pointed out that the ship was part of a convoy and there were English warships all around us. That was the end of that. A few days later, we were all on deck when we were ordered to clear the deck and go to our quarters. Our guards were Polish soldiers. One of their officers ordered a guard to shoot to speed up the movement. The guard tried to shoot in the air but the officer told him to shoot at the POWs, grabbed the rifle and pushed it down when the shot went off, hitting one of our guys and killing him. He was buried at sea. The ship’s crew got hold of this Polish officer, arrested him and, when we arrived in Halifax, handed him over to the Canadian authorities. I don’t know what came out of it.”

EA: “Where were you sent after arriving in Halifax?”

FS: “We were put on trains and brought to Gravenhurst in Ontario. Camp 21 was an officers’ camp on the outskirts of Gravenhurst, right at the lake. It was a former sanatorium with lots of small rooms. We did quite a bit of work to make it a real nice place to live. And... we started to dig tunnels to get out. When the first group tried to escape, it didn’t last very long till everybody was rounded up again.”

EA: “Did you remain in Gravenhurst?”

FS: “No, in May of ’41, I volunteered for some work project out west in Alberta. It turned out to be the building of a tent city in Ozada, north of Calgary, for the German POWs caught in North Africa. Arriving in Ozada, right at the feet of the Rocky Mountains on the Bow River, in the middle of May, we found ourselves confronted with about three feet of snow. The tent poles, the floor boards, everything was covered with snow. We had quite a time to get at it, to build a tent for ourselves. We finally managed to get a hold of the situation and in due time we had enough tents built for the first group of POWs. The tent city was on Indian Territory and only fenced off with one string of barbed wire. We saw some Indians sitting on their horses outside the fenced-in camp, watching what the Germans were doing. To us it was quite an experience.”

EA: “Did you meet any men from your unit there?”

FS: “No, I only met two men later on and learned that most of my unit were killed in action on Crete. We spent the whole summer in this ‘tent city’. There were 6 or 7,000 POWs in this camp. I came in with the first group and left in December with the last group for Lethbridge, Alberta. During the summer they had built two big camps to house the increasing number of German POWs, one in Lethbridge and another in Medicine Hat. There must have been 10,000 prisoners in those camps.”

EA: “Did you remain in Alberta?”

FS: “No, I went back to Gravenhurst, my first camp. Two of our guys died and were buried there. A friend of mine, Walter Nehm from Husum, Schleswig-Holstein made the two monuments for the graves of the dead. The material, ironwood from South America, was shipped to Gravenhurst with the help of Professor Boeschenstein, who was sort of the coordinator between the camp and the Canadian government, the Red Cross and the YMCA. He was a Swiss national and tried always to help us whenever possible. I met him years later in Toronto, where he was a professor at the University of Toronto, Head of the German Department.” “The monuments were later transferred to Kitchener, where all the German POWs of both World Wars were finally laid to rest. Last year, some stupid guy or guys tried to burn the monuments, without success. Ironwood doesn’t burn too well. In the meantime, both the original monuments were replaced by two replicas. The originals are now in a museum in Kitchener.”

EA: “What did you do while you were in these camps?”

FS: “I didn’t spend too much time in the camps. There was a chance to volunteer for outside work and I ended up in northern Ontario in a ‘bush camp’ north of Timmins. We were cutting wood for the paper mill in Smooth Rock Falls. To me it was a nice time. I enjoyed nature, did all kinds of odd jobs, including becoming a teacher. I spent nearly three years in the bush. Some of our guys couldn’t stand the heat and the millions of mosquitoes and black flies. They had to be transferred to another camp.”

EA: “What did you hear about the progress of the war?”

FS: “We had a radio there, so we were informed about what happened during the war.”

EA: “Did your family know where you were?”

FS: “Yes, they knew that I was alive and a POW in Canada. We were allowed to write one letter every month.”

EA: “Did you think that Germany would win the war?”

FS: “We all were guys of 22 to 30 years old. We hoped we could win, or that the war came to an end we could live with the result. But we were up in the woods in northern Ontario. In some way we had lost touch with the outside world, including the war. Cutting down trees was more important than anything else. What mattered was how many cords you got.”

EA: “How did you hear the war was over?”

FS: “I heard it on the radio. The big question was: what are they going to do with us? Are we going to be sent home to Germany? Into the Western Zone or into the Eastern Zone? We couldn’t do anything but wait.”

EA: “What happened to your family during the war?”

FS: “We had sort of an estate in Silesia and we lost it. My mother died in 1941. At the end of the war, everybody from the eastern part of Germany tried to get out before the Russians came. My father reached a small village near Leipzig, where we had a little house. He stayed there till he died. My sister, also a POW for a short time, found a place in West Germany. Strange story: we were brought from Gravenhurst to Toronto and they didn’t know what to do with me, I was up and around for three or four days, restless for some reason, not knowing what had happened. Then later a letter came and it said that my mother had died right at that time. I can’t explain it.”

EA: “When were you sent back to Germany?”

“In December 1946. The rest of the German POWs – including me – sailed from Halifax on the Duchess of York to Liverpool, England. We ended up in Oldham, the same camp where we started our journey to Canada back in may of 1940. It took another five months till I was sent to Germany, to Münsterlager near Lüneburg. Friends of mine told me not to give my address in the Eastern Zone of Germany, because then you would be sent into the Russian Zone. So I told them in Münsterlager I was from Dortmund and they accepted that. Others said they were from the east and were handed over to the Russians and put in trucks to the Russian Zone. They found out too late. I got my papers for Dortmund, but didn’t know anyone in the Western Zone. On the 10th of May, 1947, exactly seven years after I became a POW in Holland, I was handed a railroad ticket and some cash – and I was FREE. All I had was a few personal belongings and a railroad ticket to Dortmund.”

EA: “What about your family?”

FS: “Like millions of people, they had to leave everything behind and escape to the West, away from the Russians. It took me nearly two years to find out where my father was. I didn’t know he had made it to the little village near Leipzig. I went over there and met him. My sister came from the Western Zone to meet her fiancé and married him. They lived in the Eastern Zone till they died.”

EA: “What kind of work did you do in Dortmund?”

FS: “I stayed for a while on the estate of a friend of the family. I had to report once a month to the ‘authorities’. When I didn’t do it, they picked me up and put me in a work camp near Hirschberg. I had to cut wood again, timber that was to be shipped to England. After a couple of months in that camp, I disappeared. I found a job near Bochum, on an estate.”

EA: “How did you return to Canada?’

FS: ‘In 1946, just before we left Canada with the last few German POWs on the Duchess of York to England, I had signed an offer from the Canadian government to stay and work in Canada for at least one year. After that I could stay and look for work myself. But since we were not ‘Canadian’ POWs but classified as ‘British’ POWs, England insisted that we had to be returned to England. Late in the fall of 1946 we left for England. To go back to Canada at that time, between 1946 and 1950, was almost impossible because there was a law in effect that prohibited the return to Canada of former POWs. However on the 1st of October, 1950 this law was lifted. Shortly afterwards I received a letter from Canada asking me whether I would stick to that contract I had signed in 1946 with the Department of Northern Affairs. If yes, all my papers were at the Canadian Office in Karlsruhe and I should report there. Since my family lost everything in Upper Silesia and there were no relatives I knew of in the Western Zone, I went to Karlsruhe, reported to the Canadian Office. After clearing all the paperwork, I finally got a visa to Canada and I left Germany from Hamburg in September 1951. My wife and I were engaged back then, and I went by myself first, didn’t know whether it would work out. Reporting to the Immigration Office in Toronto, I found out that the group I was to join had already gone up north without me. And I had to wait for the next group to follow. In the meantime, I worked at the Immigration Office as an interpreter for the German immigrants that arrived, often without speaking a word of English. I still wanted to go up north and asked to be let out of my contract with Immigration. They thought I was crazy when they heard it, why would I give up free room & board?  But I got my way and I ended up cutting wood north of Timmins. The money was good. There was a Finnish settlement there, with a school, about a dozen kids. The teacher fell ill and didn’t come back. So I taught the kids English two hours a day. A union representative asked me whether I was getting paid. I said I’d never thought of it. So they arranged for me to be paid and wanted me to keep the school going. For this purpose, I had to take an exam. This was supposed to take all day, but by noon I didn’t know what else to write, so I handed it in and said “I don’t know what else to write.” Back in camp, I got the message that I had passed. I taught there until March 1952. The parents tried everything to make me stay, but I decided to leave. That was the end of my bush life. My wife and I married in Montreal on March 10, 1952. We had four sons and they are all married. One of them lives in Timmins, not far from the places I have been in 1942-44.”

EA: “Did you ever go back to Germany?”

FS: “Yes, quite a few times in the years to follow. Through the years, I’ve worked in a number of different places; in Sault St. Marie, in Oshawa and in London, all in Ontario. I became a certified Electrician and worked as a contractor. We moved to London in 1955 and as I was interested in the German language, I became the principal of the German Language School in 1959 and did that for more than 30 years. Since we started the German-Canadian Student Exchange in 1961, I had to go to Germany at least once a year. The first group of German-Canadian students that went to Germany in 1962 came from London. The exchange program is still going strong.”

EA: “For a number of Canadians, it was lack of work and the promise of adventure that made them join the Armed Forces. What prompted you to enlist?’

FS: “Back in 1937-38 everybody had to serve at least six months or one year in the ‘Reichsarbeitsdienst’ and after that at least two years in the Armed Forces. I wanted to join the Air Force. To become an officer, you normally had to stay for 4.5 years. I heard of a special officer’s training that enabled you to get away with three years. I applied and passed, cut short my education at the University of Breslau and joined the Air Force. Two years later, the war broke out and everything changed. That was the only mistake I made: I didn’t think. The war was on and I became a POW.”

EA: “It was an honour speaking with you.”

FS: “You’re welcome. Make sure you call when you’re in London again.”

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