23 Mar 21 JOHN THE POLE – An Unforgettable Character
Some reflections on his life by Basil Borthwick with acknowledgements to Peter McGhie and Phil Webster, his two `muckers` on the march west from Gorlitz, to Billy Allison (The Fox) for copies of letters from John’s step-daughter, Mrs Agnes Mitchelmore, and to Bob Anderson for John’s 1962 letter. (This article was printed in PowWow, the magazine of the New Zealand ex-Prisoners of War Assn.)
His real name was Jan Sojak, but in September 1943, when the prisoners in Camp 52 near Genoa were seized by the Germans at the time of the Italian Armistice and taken to Germany, he had the good sense to discard his Polish identify and assume that of a deceased South African soldier, John de Beer.
However, in Campo 52 and Stalag VIIIA, to most New Zealanders he was better known as “John the Pole”. In p.o.w. camps there were always a few men who stood out above their fellows and John was one of these. New Zealanders who knew him in these two camps will be saddened to learn of his death in England on 3 September, 1977.
As prisoners of war we rubbed shoulders with men of many nationalities and after 30 years
it is natural that our memories of some of them have faded, but others, with striking personalities and strength of character, are impossible to forget – John Sojak is one of them.
Poland has had a long history of division by greater powers and only after World War 1 could the Poles call their country their own. All Poles are intensely patriotic but many (prior to 1914) were conscripted into the armies of the powers occupying Poland so, in World War 1, John Sojak, at 18 years of age, fought for the Austrians against the Italians.
In the years between the two world wars John served in the Polish regular army and attained the rank of regimental sergeant major in a cavalry regiment. This was a rank in the Polish army that carried a great deal of prestige and at the Opera House it was common for people to offer to give up their seat to an R.S.M. At this time a craze developed among Polish n.c.o.’s and many, including John, had their back teeth taken out and replaced with gold teeth, drilled and counter-sunk. Later, as a p.o.w. in Germany, John was always careful when talking to a German sentry, to speak tight-lipped and not advertise that he had gold teeth in his mouth.
On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and by 5 September Hitler’s forces had broken through the Polish army and overrun the Polish corridor. John, in action against the Germans in the west, was taken prisoner; he escaped and making his way south-east for a considerable distance, joined Polish forces near the Rumanian border. Just over two weeks later, on 17 September, the Russian army advanced into Poland along the 800 miles of Polish/Russian border and crushed any remaining Polish hopes. With their army and airforce defeated the Poles then tried to get troops out of the country to fight with the Allies, but when the Russian and German forces met on the Upper Dniestr on 20 September, only those Poles near the Rumanian bridge-head were able to escape across the border.
John, after capture by the Russians, escaped again, crossed into Rumania, and by way of Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria made his way to Palestine, where he joined the Free Polish Brigade. In September 1940 the cafes in Tel Aviv were full of Polish soldiers and at the Commercial Hotel there must have been a shortage of mattresses; Polish soldiers, fully dressed, were sleeping on the wires of the wire mattresses. John rarely spoke of his own experiences at this time but early in 1941 he took part in General Wavell’s conquest of Cyrenaica as a liaison officer attached to the 7th Armoured Division. After the battle of Beda Fomm, where General Bergonzoh surrendered with his army, the 7th Armoured Division completed the conquest by advancing to the border of Tripolitania, near El Agbiela. It was here, in late March, that Rommel commenced his counter-offensive (the bulk of the desert army was then in Greece); in the ensuing actions John was captured for the third time and was sent eventually to Campo 52 at Piani-di-Coreglia, near Genoa.
In early 1942, when the camp was filled up with New Zealanders and South Africans captured in the Libyan “Crusader” battles, he shared a hut with Bob Anderson of 20 Battalion, Cathro of 5 Field Ambulance and two Englishmen, Ollie Squirrel and Van Winsum, all warrant officers. Here he found Bob Anderson to be a kindred soul; they talked together for hours and enjoyed each other’s company, but John, as always, was reticent about his own experiences. Bob claims that he taught him some “good” English.
As new arrivals we soon became aware of John as he often exercised in the company of two Polish boys who looked only half his age. In the compound he often loitered near the barbed wire and appeared to be talking in whispers to the Italian sentry outside the wire. The whispering was regarded with some suspicion until we discovered that John, with his linguistic ability, was endeavouring to sound out various sentries as possible sources of information. He was always well informed. He could converse in any European language but for some reason he disliked Hungarian; he considered it a difficult language to speak well. As a trader he had a natural shrewdness and was a most accomplished gymnast. Although not tall, his body was well proportioned, and he was tremendously strong. With one of the young Polish boys he gave displays of gymnastics at open-air concerts in the camp; for most New Zealanders these were a novelty and besides being entertaining they helped to establish him as one of the camp personalities.
In December 1942 all New Zealanders in Campo 52 were shifted to Campo 57 but John, being a Pole, remained in 52. However, with the collapse of Italy in September 1943 he found himself on the way to Stalag VIIIA in Germany, where he rejoined many of his former New Zealand friends. It was at this time that he took over John de Beer’s identity; he didn’t want the Germans to know he was a Pole, he feared that he might be conscripted into the German army and sent to the Russian front.
His appearance reflected his life as a professional soldier. Always clean shaven, he dressed with the fastidious pride of a Polish cavalry man and in Gorlitz in the summer of 1944, a photo showed his sturdy figure in shirt and shorts, hose tops and short white socks just turned down over his boots – neat, clean and compact.
In Stalag VIIIA some barracks contained predominantly one nationality and often this led to insularity. Barrack 33A, where John lived, was completely the reverse: it contained at least ten different nationalities, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Indian, Polish, South African, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian and, with some lively characters, life in the hut was always interesting.
John lived at the lower end with a group of seven New Zealanders, Ralph Willocks, “Monty” Montgomery, Peter McGhie, Bob Anderson, Ted O’Hara, Jim Hurrell, Phil Webster, the Australian Andy McGregor, and an Englishman, Joe Bakewell. At the top, or opposite end of the hut, Billy Allison (The Fox) lived with his group and John would often come along the alleyway between the three decker beds to visit him and exchange the latest griff. He would look round and if he couldn’t see “The Fox” he would ask anybody in the vicinity, “Where’s Foxie?”. Where “The Fox” might be was always a mystery and usually, before anybody could reply, John would speak aloud to himself “Oh well, hunting in the forest” and away he would go.
The March westwards ahead of the Russian advance brought its own problems and the German system for issuing rations to prisoners on the march was very unreliable. At first, those men who had a supply of British Red Cross cigarettes could trade for extra food, but after a month on the road very few men had anything worthwhile left to trade. Peter McGhie said that John was the first man he ever saw with a gold wedding ring and after three weeks marching John decided that he would sell his ring if he could do a good deal. He sold it for ten kilograms of bread and, being a generous man, he shared it with his two marching companions, Peter McGhie and Phil Webster.
Saturday night, 10 March 1945, a bunch of us were housed in a small barn between Schonstedt and Dinglestadt in Thuringia; next day, a Sunday, we had a short march of sixteen kilometers to Worbis and about 2.30 a.m. about 100 of us were settled down in a draughty, broken-down barn. John tramped silently along with his big pack and he still had half the bread he had bought with his wedding ring. The thought of that bread in John’s pack was too much for some person and he decided to steal it if an opportunity arose. The farmer was a tolerant man and didn’t seem to realise that we were stealing his potatoes; he saw us burning battens off his barn and even produced an axe for us to chop them up. Men were busy cooking, shaving and washing, and somehow, amid all this activity, John’s pack disappeared, with his bread! This was a hit below the belt – losing his pack and personal possessions was bad enough, but to lose 5 kilos of bread as well was, in the circumstances, a real tragedy! Poor John, he was really dejected. With hunched shoulders, head down and hands clasped behind his back he stumped up and down the barn mouthing out two words for all to hear , “English gentlemen, English gentlemen, English gentlemen. E-n-g-l-i-s-h g-e-n-t-l-e-m-e-n!!” This was a bitter moment for him and his mind was in a torment; it was a good thing for the thief that he was undetected – if John had known who he was he would have beaten him to pulp. It seemed that John now lost faith in humanity and there was just no way his companions could comfort him. We settled down for the night, all conscious of John’s condemnation of “English gentlemen” – a term that embraced everybody of British descent.
Next morning at 6 a.m. it was “raus, raus, raus” and everybody packed up ready to move. The Germans couldn’t make up their minds and in the end it was back to the barn – a rest day. We didn’t do too badly for food that day; the farmer turned on two soups but the finest sight seen in the barn was the Australian, Tommy Baker Williams, with a steamer full of cooked peeled potatoes. In exchange for a cake of Canadian Red Cross soap, the farmer’s wife had cooked them for him; they looked and smelt wonderful. The farmer himself was a puzzle. He must have realised we were ratting his store of potatoes; maybe he realised the writing was on the wall for Germany and he was turning a blind eye to our depradations. In preparation for moving the following day most of us stole as many potatoes as we could carry. By this time John’s pack had come to light, minus the bread; who the thief was remained a mystery and life went on.
For days our sentries had been telling us we would soon reach a permanent camp; we were all sick of this nomadic life and looked forward to the normal facilities of a stalag. From Worbis on 13th March we marched through Forna and on to this mythical stalag at Duderstadt – what a shock for everyone! 4000 men in a brick kiln, four floors with one narrow stairway, brick dust everywhere, one hand water pump that ran dry every day about 2 p.m. and sanitation facilities minimal. An R.A.F. (old school tie) man described the place as “blooday”. On the march from Gorlitz, Duderstadt was the most western point reached and is the only place en route that is now in West Germany.
Duderstadt was a queer place, men came and went – some couldn’t get away quickly enough and you couldn’t blame them; some went out on working parties to repair bomb damage to railway yards, others just vanished and some stayed for three weeks. Bert Meyer, a South African from our old 33A hut in VIIIA, was shot dead while brewing-up on the roof, and many Americans died – captured in the Battle of the Bulge they were very new prisoners and didn’t have the experience and resistance of the longer-term prisoners.
John, as an RSM, and Peter and Phil, as sergeants, were not required to work unless they volunteered and this they refused to do. Some men were glad to volunteer to work just to get away from the kiln. John, Peter and Phil discussed the situation again and although Phil had remarked “We’ll die here”, none of the three was prepared to work. Many felt that the kiln was a death trap and in case of bombing or fire the consequences for the Gefanganers inside were too ghastly to contemplate – they had to get away from the place.
John’s separation from his two marching companions at Duderstadt remains a mystery. In the maelstrom of comings and goings it could have been accidental but it is hard to believe that he would have left Peter and Phil and joined an outgoing column on a sudden impulse. With Germany crumbling to obvious ruin, John, as a Pole, may have felt a need to be by himself; perhaps he became obsessed with what the end of the war was going to mean to him. He might have joined a column going to Gottingen; it set out and returned two days later – they had marched fifty kilos for nothing. A trainload of sick left for Fallingbostel; John couldn’t have qualified for it but with his skill as a linguist he might have talked himself on board in some capacity. His record of survival in two world wars was impressive; the fact that he had survived was possibly due to his built-in sagacity and, this, with his constant alertness, could perhaps be called a sixth sense of self-preservation. This sense may have been so strong within him that he felt the need for independent movement and on Easter Tuesday, 3/4/1945, when Peter and Phil moved out of the brick kiln, John wasn’t with them and they didn’t see him again in Germany. Nine days later, on 12 April, their column was overtaken in the Saxon town of Ditfurt by Sherman tanks from General Simpson’s 9th American Army. In the excitement of release Peter and Phil were a little sad that John wasn’t with them to share the great moment and they wondered where he was and what had happened to him.
The column stayed put for five days and after the rigours of the German winter and two months on the roads it was five days of heaven. Freedom, full bellies, spring had suddenly arrived – everybody revelled in the sunshine, apple trees were bursting into blossom, bees were buzzing and every hen in town was cackling. The townspeople, predominantly women, their numbers swelled with refugees from Hamburg, were concerned for their own safety and, regarding the British as non-barbaric, requested that British p.o.w.’s come into their houses as protection against possible reprisals from Russian workers who were also free.
On 17 April the Ditfurt column was collected in American troop carrying trucks and travelled via Brunswick, then taken to Hildesheim airfield to await its turn to be airlifted out of Germany in Dakota aircraft. Some men were flown direct to airfields in England, but on Anzac Day 25/4/45, flights were made to Brussels in Belgium – men were taken to Ostend by train and shipped to Tilbury in the Ulster Castle.
The Reception Depot for New Zealand soldiers was at Margate in Kent, and in the first week in May who should arrive but John Sojak, in search of Peter McGhie. In battle-dress with Polish flashes and shoulder-tabs it seemed that, apart from the uniform, the Polish authorities hadn’t been able to do a great deal for him; he was short of cash. Peter gave him some as a gift but John made no mention of how and when he had arrived in England; he was still reticent about his own experiences.
During the summer of 1945 he lived in London. Billy Allison, who had arrived in the U.K. from Odessa by ship in June, was about to board a train when he met John in battle-dress and wearing a khaki beret – there was just time for a brief conversation. Assistant Hut Commander, Bob Anderson, also met him in London in uniform and on several occasions John took him to a Polish Club, not far from the New Zealand Fernleaf Club in Lowndes Square, for refreshments.
A year or two after his return to New Zealand Billy Allison recalls receiving two letters from John from an R.A.F. Station at Banff in Scotland where he was serving with the rank of Warrant Officer.
In 1977, in response to an enquiry from Billy, the Commander of the Royal Air Force Station at Lossiemouth in Morayshire reported that the Banff Station had been closed for many years but Army Records Centre (Polish) had confirmed that John had served in the Polish Resettlement Corps R.A.F. until September 1948.
Early in 1947 Peter McGhie received a Polish Christmas card from John with a brief message “Best wishes for Christmas and coming New Year from John”. The card showed replicas of the Scottish thistle, Polish lion and eagle and a Christmas candle; the only address was Scotland 1946. It was the only letter Peter ever had from him. With the publication in London of the book “Interlude”, a record of Stalag VIIIA at Gorlitz, Peter ordered a copy for John but never had an address to send it to. It does seem that John, always reticent about himself, was still reluctant to disclose his whereabouts. In Poland, at the beginning of World War 2, he was married with one daughter and it would seem that he had no wish to return to his homeland. The final document in his Army Records file was a notice of British naturalisation dated 12/2/1951 – no address was stated.
On completion of his service with the R.A.F. it is believed he returned to London and learned the plumbing trade; in due course he set up in business on his own account but little is known of him until 1962 when Bob Anderson received a reply to a letter he had written. Typewritten on paper headed J. F Sojak, Plumber and Decorator, and dated 1 July, 1962. (The letter and remainder of the article have been edited to remove personal details of him and his family in the U.K.)
Dear Friends, I was very pleased to get your letter. I very often talk about our prison days. ….. I have settled here in London with a Scottish wife. I brought my daughter from Poland here for holiday, I had not seen her for twenty years. … We went for a tour of the Continent. I didn’t visit the prison camps except the one at Chiavari (Campo 52) in Italy. Nothing remains; it was razed to the ground by the locals when we left. ………………
Following his wife’s death in 1977 John’s health deteriorated and he died on 7 September, 1977.
Brady, T. O., Crandle, F.
“Interlude / the story of British prisoners of war
in Stammlager VIIIA at Görlitz in Lower Silesia, Germany”