NEWPORT man Trevor Berry is 83 now but he remembers his father, Sapper Cecil Phillip Berry, leaving to fight in France in 1940.

"He was stationed at Monmouth school on the cricket ground, where they did their training."

"I remember they marched down Mendalgief Road past David Street where we lived when they left for France in 1940."

He would not see his father again until 1945.

Sapper Berry served with the Royal Engineers and was captured at Dunkirk along with thousands of other British soldiers.

They were marched north to Germany, eventually to be taken to prison camps in northern Poland.

Stalag XX was a German prisoner of war camp in what is now Torun, Poland.

Then part of German East Prussia and known as Thorn, it lay south of the city then known as Danzig, now Gdansk on the banks of the Vistula river.

It was to be the home for many captured British soldiers during the Second World War. The camp held as many as 20,000 men at its peak.

It was not a single camp but the main holding area was located in a complex of 15 forts that surrounded the whole of the city. The forts had been built at the end of the 19th century to defend the western border of Prussia.

With the defeat of the British Army in France, thousands of British soldiers were captured. Although Dunkirk was indeed a ‘miracle of deliverance’ as Churchill put it and saw more than a quarter of a million British soldiers whisked from the beaches of Northern France under the noses of the advancing Germans, many more were captured. For every seven soldiers who escaped at Dunkirk, one man was left behind as a prisoner of war.

To deal with this influx of prisoners additional forts were added to the camps in Poland to accommodate British soldiers. The first to arrive were 403 men from the Allied campaign in Norway. Later about 4,500 arrived from Dunkirk and subsequently from the British 51st (Highland) Infantry Division captured at near Calais.

They were marched to Germany, via Belgium, following the route over which the Germans had advanced against them. Many of the prisoners were marched to the city of Trier, which took as long as 20 days. Others were marched to the river Scheldt and were sent by barge to the Ruhr.

In accordance with the Third Geneva Convention, PoWs below the rank of sergeant were required to work and were attached to Arbeitskommando (‘labour units’).

At Stalag XX separate parts of the camp saw prisoners doing different jobs. One camp had 200 men working in ship yard on the banks of Vistula. Schulitz camp had 114 men building homes for German Colonists. This was one of the drivers for the German conquest of Poland, the perceived need to provide colonies or ‘lebensraum’ for the German people. The hapless British PoWs had no chance but to help the Germans build their Nazi empire.

Aside from these, there was a wide variety of jobs, most involving either back-breaking work, monotony or both. One soldier at Stalag XX-A wrote how he worked in a sugar beet factory and was later sent to work on a farm where the work was hard, but the food plentiful. Food is a recurring theme, its appearance, the lack of it and how central it was to their morale.

The misery of the PoW experience is shown by one diary entry: “Little food – slept in huts thank goodness — it all seems like a bad nightmare from which I can’t awake. On 4th June we were transported in cattle trucks to a destination unknown — no food.”

In an effort to boost the morale of Gwent soldiers being held, the South Wales Argus launched a Prisoner of war fund in August 1940. The object of the fund was to provide comforts for prisoners from the Monmouthshire area.

Within a couple of months, the Argus had identified 478 local soldiers who were being held in prison camps. Each one, we were told, had been sent books, games, musical instruments and cigarettes.

Through the British Prisoner of War Books and Games Fund we also learnt orders had been placed for 4358 parcels of books. Orders had also been given through the fund for a staggering 48,000,000 cigarettes.

By January the following year, £1,853 had been given to the fund and it was felt the parcels being sent were giving a boost to the men’s morale.

“So far many parcels have not been acknowledged but the joy of those who have received the parcels is reward for the considerable voluntary work entailed in organising and running the fund” the Argus reported.

Sapper Berry sent a letter to his wife in November 1940 which she received the following January, saying: “I have received your last parcel of soup and chocolate and was very glad to get them.”

The letters gave some idea of how the prisoners were passing their time. Sapper IJ Kingston at Stalag XXA (41) wrote to his wife at 29 Millman Street in Newport: “Some of the lads are playing football. Charlie Turner is keeping his hand in at goal.

Former Newport pupil Sapper Hubert Attwell, who was being held captive at Stalag XX wrote to the headmaster at St Julian’s High School. “I must thank you, the staff and the boys for so fondly remembering me. “I have received two parcels of books through the Argus fund. They have given me and my comrades many hours of pleasant reading. “I sincerely hope I will be in a position to visit you all in the near future.”

The value of food as a morale-booster was clear. Sapper William Kelly at Stammlager wrote to his parents in Newport, saying “I had a very enjoyable Christmas, the pudding, cake and pork went down very well. We had no nuts but I am hoping to crack a few next year”.

The Argus also ran a ‘postbag’ scheme for keeping people in touch with prisoners of war. The family of Sapper HO Dean from Newport told of their gratitude for the help in letting people know their man was safe and well. His wife wrote: “I thank the Argus most sincerely that through your paper we are all able to read how he is getting on.”

Member of the Royal Engineers, Sapper Dean, 33, was in the Territorial Army before the war but was taken prisoner at Dunkirk.

Some managed to escape the confines of the camp. Many of those who did slip the net found safety in neutral Sweden just across the Baltic Sea.

A month later Flight Lieutenant TH Cullen climbed a ladder over the wire in a blind spot between watchtowers and scrambled over a frozen moat. He was picked up by a lorry, given shelter by sympathetic Poles and was too taken to Gotenhafen, from where he escaped to Sweden.

The end of the war would see a final trauma for the men behind the wire. When the Russians overran Poland, the PoWs were marched into Western Germany in January 1945.

They did this in one of the worst winters of the 20th Century. Temperatures fell to as low as -15C and they had inadequate clothing and meagre rations. The men had to make do with only the food and water they could scrounge in the middle of winter. There were no food parcels from Argus readers to help them here.

Around 180,000 Commonwealth servicemen died of starvation or disease in the forced marches and many more collapsed through malnutrition and exhaustion.

Trevor Berry recalls his father was reluctant  to talk about his time as a PoW. "He didn't tell me much about his time in Germany - only that he worked in a sugar beet factory and a brewery. Apart from that he wanted to forget about it."

Ironically, Sapper Berry is pictured with his brother-in-law, another soldier of the Royal Engineers Thomas Kingdom. He was given work on a farm, Trevor says.

It is ironic too that Trevor would spend his summers in Newport working on a farm near where the Lighthouse caravan park is now. "We had German and Italian prisoners of war working there too" he remembers. "I was quite friendly with some and I even became a pen pal with one of them."

His father was none too pleased with this he recalls.

Allied prisoners were freed as the allies swept through Germany in spring 1945. The captivity for those on the losing side would last for two years more before they too could go home.