An independent soul who never forgot wartime experience
An Alnwick man, who was held prisoner for five years during the Second World War, has died at the age of 98.
James Owen Storey, known as Jim, was born on December 6, 1919, at Hamsterley Colliery, County Durham. He was the third of seven children, six brothers and one sister born to William and Elizabeth Storey.
At an early age, the family moved to the other side of the River Derwent to live in Blackhall Mill down the hill from Chopwell. He went to school in Low Westwood, crossing the river every day via a rope bridge which obviously led to some high jinks between the brothers.
On leaving school, as far as we know, he started work down the local pit and stayed there until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1938, along with his pals, he joined the Territorial Army Reserve and when war was declared in 1939 was enlisted in the 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish, The Black Watch, with the rank of private. He was sent to a training camp in Gateshead where he was prepared for war. He was trained to use guns and how to survive, but as he said many years later, it did not do any good once they went overseas as there was little food or ammunition.
On April 23, 1940, he sailed from England and landed in Le Havre in northern France. From there, he was sent by train to eastern France near the German front line and billeted in a farm sleeping in a hayloft. He was then sent to a town near the Belgian border to help build a new runway for the RAF.
But on May 18, the Germans broke through and they were ordered to turn back and march to Dunkirk. He never arrived. Jim often told the tale, in his later years, of the battle that led to his capture. Of how most of his comrades were killed in a cornfield near a little French village, of how he was shot through his tin helmet, the bullet passing through and missing his head by millimetres, of how he was shot in the back, but saved by the ration tins he was carrying in his haversack, and of how one bullet caught him in the chest, but smashed his steel mirror and hit the thick little prayer book belonging to his mother that she had given him the day he left home for war and he kept in the breast pocket of his battle-dress.
The bullet broke the little crucifix inside the prayer book but saved his life. He often said that someone must have been praying for him that day because he felt it was a miracle that he survived. He held that little book in his hand until shortly before he died.
After this battle, Jim was captured by the Germans. It was May 23, 1940, and he was sent off into captivity. At various times on his journey he was separated first from his officer and then by a quirk of fate from the half-dozen of his comrades with whom he had been captured. So he ended up in a Polish PoW camp without anyone he knew and celebrated his 21st birthday nearly dying of exposure in the extremely cold winter of 1940.
Jim spent the next five years in PoW camps in Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia, being finally set free by the Russians on May 23, 1945, exactly five years to the day since being captured. In his later years, he started to open up and talk about his experiences as a PoW.
Some were funny, some sad and many were tragic and disturbing. He faced firing squads three times and was involved in all sorts of sabotage and generally annoying behaviour which he saw as his way of fighting for his country, but said on more than one occasion that every day he spent as a prisoner he was hungry.
Almost to the last week of his life, as the staff in Castleview in Alnwick will attest, he rarely, if ever, left any food on his plate no matter how long it took him to eat it. He knew the value of food and didn’t waste it.
After the war, Jim took time to recover, but eventually ended up working as a coal-miner again in Chopwell and living in the family home. In 1953, he married his first wife Agnes and moved to a prefab bungalow just down the road. Unfortunately Agnes was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1957 and died in July of that year. So Jim was on his own again.
Jim, like all of his brothers, was a great supporter of the Society of St Vincent de Paul – a Roman Catholic charity. It was while he was attending an SVP gathering in Alnwick that he met another Agnes who was to become his second wife. They were married in Alnwick at the old Catholic church on Bailiffgate in October, 1960.
They moved into the bungalow in Chopwell and stayed there until the mid 1960s when, along with his brother John and his family, they moved to Knottingley in North Yorkshire to follow the mining jobs as the mines in the North East began to close. They stayed there until Jim retired in 1979 when they moved to Alnmouth and not long afterwards to their flat in St Paul’s Court, Alnwick. They spent many happy years there, made many friends and went on holidays all over the country, motoring to places as far afield as Devon and the Scottish Highlands.
Jim loved the gardens at St Paul’s, helping tend to them and building bird boxes for anyone who asked. In his later years he loved just looking out of his window watching the seasons change and the wildlife around the garden.
Sadly, in September 2009, Agnes died just short of their 50th wedding anniversary and Jim’s 90th birthday. This was a massive blow to Jim and he never really came to terms with it. He missed Agnes greatly.
Over the last eight years or so, his mobility became more restricted and slowly his ability to manage on his own declined. This, however, did not stop him racing around Alnwick on his mobility scooter much to the anxiety of those who lived around him and probably the fear of those he encountered on the streets of the town.
Towards the end of last summer, after a spell in hospital, it was apparent that he could not go back home and moved into Castleview care home, firstly on a respite basis and then on a permanent basis.
It was not an easy transition as Jim was an independent soul who just wanted to go home, but with the very professional care, empathy and understanding of the staff at Castleview he eventually accepted that this was his new home and settled there.
Unfortunately his time there was to prove all too short and early in the new year, he contracted a chest infection that was to prove too much for him to fight and he died peacefully in hospital on January 22.
Memories of Private James Owen Storey, 1939-45
In 1938, I joined the Territorial Army Reserve near the town I lived in. Then when war was declared in 1939, I was enlisted in the 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish Watch. That was in September 1939. I joined with the rank of private, the lowest rank in the army.
When I joined up we were sent to a camp in Gateshead, Co Durham. This was a training camp where we were prepared for war. In those days Gateshead was all fields and now is a major trading estate near Newcastle upon Tyne. We were trained in how to use guns and to survive. However, this training did us no good, as once overseas, we had little food or ammunition.
On 23 April 1940, which is the feast day of St George of England (that is how l remember it so well), we sailed from England to Le Havre in northern France. We landed at 6am. From here we were put on trains to take us to the east of France near to the German front line. We stopped later that day and were billeted on a farm. It was only a hay loft where we all slept as no space was available in the farmhouse but at least it was warm and dry and we had food.
After one week we were all moved to the battlefront. We travelled by coach this time, as the German army had passed through Holland and Belgium without a shot being fired at them. I think the town on the Belgium border was called Provont; although I don’t remember the spelling correctly. We were assigned to work on a new runway for the RAF so that they could land near to the German troops on the border. We unloaded trucks of cement bags and stones so that the French builders could construct the airport runway. The Germans broke through these defences on 18th May 1940.
We also had to guard the canal on the border while the French troops put explosives under the bridge to stop the Germans crossing over to France. This canal bridge was blown up and we were marched hack towards Dunkirk. We never arrived there as on 21 May 1940 our Captain was advised that German tanks were seen coming south from Belgium.
We saw the Germans coming down the road about 1km in front of us, nothing happened at that stage until we saw hundreds of German troops in the village in front of us. This was 200 yards away and was the village we were trying to get to. As we approached the village, a burst of gunfire came down the middle of the road that we were marching down. We scattered to the sides of the road to the right and left as the bullets bounced down the road – killing men as they ran to the sides of the road.
I, with other men from the Black Watch, ran into a cornfield where the corn was about one metre high. As soon as we started running, the German machine guns would open fire on us. Lots of men never survived. I kept my head down until the machine guns stopped. Then I would look up and run forward as did other solders. I managed another 20 yards and heard more machine guns. This time I felt a thump in my chest. One bullet had hit my steel mirror in my breast pocket. Behind that was my prayer book. The bullet hit the arm of the crucifix and stopped, it did not kill me. As I slumped forward, the next bullet went through my tin helmet at the front and out of the side of the helmet. This did not kill me either! As I slumped forward again, my head bent low, the next bullets went through the haversack I was carrying. This held tins of rations of bacon. They were riddled with bullets – this did not kill me either.
Someone was praying for me that day. It was a miracle I survived but I did. In this cornfield were hundreds of troops, some in front of me, some hundreds behind me, all trying to lie low in the field. I lay in the field as the bullets kept coming and crawled on my stomach to where my Captain and four other men were lying. The Captain saw my helmet and back pack and said “Are you ok Storey?” I replied “I am Sir.” He could not believe I had survived. We lay there till 3pm without moving a muscle. German tanks and solders were all around us. We heard them say in English ‘Come out, come out, give yourself up’. But we did not. They could not see us as the corn was so high. I could see the tanks about 10 to 15 yards in front of us. The captain said to ‘play dead’, we lay there for two more hours. I could see the top of the field where our troops had set up an anti-tank position. Two men carried the gun and two men carried bullets. It was a railway embankment.
All I saw after that was the men being shot to pieces by shells, they were killed instantly. I fell to the ground as the big shells went over my head, as did all the troops who had not been captured. The captain gave the order to look up and check the land. After two hours lying as if dead in the cornfield, it was clear that prisoners had been taken and that hundreds of soldiers lay dead.
We got up and moved towards the next village. Some French men passed and our Captain asked if they had any food. All they had were boiled pig’s feet. We said ‘no’ – as hungry as we were we could not eat the pig’s feet. We had been three days now without food. We were ordered to lie low again till nightfall where we skirted around the village. As we approached it our hearts sank as we saw German troops there. As we got to the village we could see a tank. It was between the gateposts of the chateau. I was sent to check it out. I could hear Germans talking inside the tank but we decided if we attacked it the whole army would hbe on to us. We passed quietly as we were also helping one of our wounded comrades who had been shot earlier in the leg. He was heavy to carry between us but we would not leave him.
We walked all night under cover of dark till we came to a deserted village. I approached the pub and saw two green eyes staring out of the darkened window. I drew my rifle to shoot at it but the officer said no. We went inside the pub. It was deserted. We looked for anything we could eat but only found one packet of Woodbine cigarettes and wine. The green eyes turned out to be a great big St Bernard dog waiting for its master to return home. I was so relieved it was just a dog and I did not shoot it earlier.
We walked on all night to a town that I think was called Deerlak. We saw in the distance three or four German tanks on top of the wooded area in the village. Half a mile to the left we could see something that made our hearts sink. Across the field we could see what looked like the whole German Army coming towards us. Within minutes, tanks came towards us firing bullets over our heads. We surrendered. We lay down our rifles and were taken prisoners. The German officer said in broken English that we were now PoWs, He told us not to mess with the German army and to follow the German guard down the road towards the German camp. We were taken to a deserted farm with a courtyard around it. Our Captain was taken away and we never saw him again. In war, all officers are separated from their men and interrogated for information about the British war plans.
We were scared as we were told to line up against a wall and to put our hands over our closed eyes. We were told that it was the best for us as we would not see what was to happen to us. We saw 14 German soldiers line up in front of us. Then we heard the command to fire. No soldier fired. We were told to open our eyes. The German officer said: “This is your last warning. The next time the soldiers will shoot to kill you. Now go on your way.” We went as prisoners, with the German guards, to a prisoner of war camp. We had no food from being captured until we were taken to Poland in cattle trucks. Thousands of prisoners were with us – French, Moroccans from Africa and South Africans. Each day the German officer would count 100 soldiers. These we found out were sent to Bulgaria to PofW camps. The next day we lined up for the count again. I was with my four buddies in the line-up. The count went up 98,99,100. I was 101 in the line-up. My friends were taken away. I never saw them again. I was now on my own with thousands of other prisoners who were fighting for Great Britain.
The very next day we were lined up once again. This time we were packed onto railway trucks, a little like cattle trucks, and packed in like sardines in a tin. We were in there for two full days and we came to the infamous Stalag 13A camp. It was called Thorn – why it got that name we were to find out later. We were there three weeks in all. The camp was unusual as it was all underground. It had been built like that as it was on the German front line of action. In the camp our work was to go to an ammunition depot where we worked with Polish soldiers making firing ranges for the German soldiers to practice shooting.
We were packed off to a town called Bromberg. That’s how the Germans pronounced it although I think it is spelt another way. It was known in Polish as Bydgoszcz. We had to clear away bombs from the bombed buildings. These bombs were dropped by the RAF and had delayed timers on them – up to a week’s delay in some cases. It was frightening work as we did not know how long the bombs had lain there. In this town was a huge river called the Vistula. It split the town in two. It had a town square like Alnwick, where I live now. One side had a big church building. We were billeted half a mile from the church to save time travelling back to camp. We were allowed by the German guards to go to mass at 6am each day before work started. Each day we passed a young girl who cycled and would see us marching into town. After a while when we were allowed a break and we would go to the church and she told us in broken English ‘food, food’ and she pointed under the benches. The food parcels contained bread, scones and lovely good food the likes of which we had not seen for months. We looked for the young girl every day and she never let us down – this lasted over two months.
We were moved again to a Polish cavalry camp that the Germans had taken over. We were made to build foundations for roads for the German troops. Near a wall we could see bullet holes about four feet from the ground where we were digging and I saw bloodstained ground below us. As we dug we found 35 bodies made up of 28 men, two women and two children. We had to dig them up for burial elsewhere – a very moving memory that never leaves you. They had been shot at point-blank range. In the ground I found a pair of Polish jackboots – the only problem was that two legs were still in them but no body, only legs. What a sight. We stayed there in Poland for over a year and were moved to East Prussia as it was known then. This was a huge camp with thousands of prisoners. Our job here was to dig ditches down the sides of roads. In our group of ten this was our work and we were billeted in a small cottage, one up one down room, that was it.
In late 1940, we left Prussia and were sent to East Germany. We were transported in cattle trucks by train again. We were sent to an open cast mine to dig for coal. It was a small camp with only about 100 men in it. Our job was underground even though it was opencast. We did loads of sabotaging. Underground there was lighting cable on the roof of the mine. At each end of the cable there were porcelain insulators to protect the cable. We used to smash hundreds of these and cause chaos. The Germans were not happy about this and we were caught by a German officer. He told the guard to give him his gun as he was going to shoot us there and then. The German soldiers would not give him his gun. We had got away with it again and how lucky is that.
After this camp we were sent to Czechoslovakia. This was now early 1943 and I stayed here until the war ended in 1945 and we were liberated by the Russians and Americans. Here we worked in underground mines near a village called Schwatz and we did this for over a year.
This was the best prisoner of war camp I had been in, we were well looked after and treated well. The German camp Commander had been a PoW in the First World War and he was a prisoner in Manchester during the 1914 to 1918 war. He was treated well by the British soldiers and said if we behaved he would repay that kindness. This he indeed did.
In a factory near our camp there were six massive gas cylinders. This was near our mine. The previous day the USA forces had bombed it with huge B52 bombers. One such bomb had bounced off the ground and stuck itself in the huge wheels of the mine shaft that lifted the cages from the mine bottom. We had to move this delayed bomb and it was later blown up. We were not injured, thank God. There were three shifts at the mine ,6-2, 2-10 ,10-6. While we were going to the mine we saw 1,000s of USA B52 planes coming towards us. We thought this was it for us. The end of life for sure. They bombed the mine and town. We saw a B52 shot down by the German ground crew. All the engines were on fire. The crew bailed out except for one man whose parachute caught on the tail of the plane as it spiralled to earth. He went down with the plane. He stood no chance at all – very sad to see it. As the crew landed the Germans shot them all. No mercy was shown to the pilots at all. This was war. Very brutal.
That’s it. A little insight into some of my war 1939-1945. I can’t believe that I survived and have just celebrated my 91st birthday.