In 1947, Billy the British soldier arrived in a small Yorkshire town know as Chapeltown, a few miles north of Sheffield, where he was attached to a Polish Resettlement Corp PRC.
The British established the Polish Resettlement Corp PSC when the Polish army was dissolved after the war ended in 1945. It was intended to be a non-operational unit of the British army funded directly by the War Office. According to the records, the purpose of the PRC was to train the Polish troops who did not wish to return to a communist Poland for a civilian life, learning the English language and different trades so that they could find work. They stayed in uniform until 1948 when it was disbanded.
The so-called uniform worn by these men was standard British issue, except for modifications made by them and they didn’t wear boots and gaiters. Uniform alterations included padding the shoulders of the blouse with different size triangles cut from a blanket, facing the opening of the blouse with matching material and inserting material in the side of the trousers to accomplish bell-bottoms. They did not wear hats, badges or insignias and were easily identifiable and not confused with the British soldiers.
The camp was situated on a high elevation overlooking the town and the gradient was so steep that the road leading up to it had to zigzag up the hill. It was a relatively small camp consisting of a number of temporary wooden billets. An army luxury Billy was now becoming accustomed to. There was a cookhouse, washrooms and latrines and that was it; there wasn’t anything else, not even a NAAFI to get a cup of tea and a bun. Another resort for the rabble!
To occupy his time Billy decided to further his education by studying the Polish language and before long he could communicate fluently with words like: Witaj, obiad, kolacja, dobra zupa, nie mam pianiedzy, and chze misie siusiu, which loosely translated means: Hello, lunch, dinner, I’m broke and where’s the toilet?
His duties involved transporting the Polish soldiers by lorry to the Howden moors each morning, drive back to the camp to collect their lunch, which they ate on the moors and then return them to the camp later in the afternoon. Now what on earth were they doing on the Yorkshire moors all day long, you might ask? And the answer was, looking for unexploded bombs. As previously explained the reason for the PRC was to train these men for civilian life, so it came as a surprise to Billy that there was such a demand for demolition experts.
In reality he would drop them off at a certain location on the moors in the morning, where they would walk over a hill and spend the entire day playing ball games, cards and just talking. They would emerge from the other side of the hill at noontime to have a relaxed luncheon over looking the Derwent waters, before being transported back to camp. What on earth were the authorities thinking, sending these people out without any equipment to look for bombs? Did they think they were stupid because they spoke another language? Sounds like another game of silly buggers and it makes you wonder whom the stupid ones were!
Not too many of the Polish soldiers spoke fluent English, but the ones who did were friendly and he got to know a number of them very well. One in particular was the official interpreter and English teacher, who was a student when he was interned in a German concentration camp for a period of 5 years. He witnessed his parents being killed by the Germans and was personally shot through the back of his hand, damaging the ligament to one of his fingers rendering it useless. At a time before most people were aware of the Holocaust atrocities, this gentleman related many horror stories to Billy, which he would read about in subsequent years.
One day when he was in the cookhouse enjoying dobra zupa, ‘good soup’ with his teacher friend, a heated argument erupted between another man and his friend. They were both shouting in Polish and the man who he did not know placed his hand upright on the table, as if to comply with the teachers command. At that moment the teacher, who was eating with a pointed knife, stabbed it through the centre of the man’s hand, pinning it to the wooden table.
After the wounded man exited the teacher explained that the man was a German collaborator during the war, who along with others, assisted the Germans interrogating Poles and suggested things like blocked gas masks. The teacher also mentioned that instead of staying in England, he and his friend, who was in the concentration camps 2 years longer than him, intended to return to Poland and make it their life’s work to track down these collaborators.
On a lighter note, and wishing to bring some fun into his life at Chapeltown, Billy made a temporary modification to his uniform with shoulder pads, removed his shoulder insignia and leaving his hat behind, ventured out to the town with his friend looking like any other Polish soldier. They had a pint in a local pub and made there way towards the park where they met two young ladies. Billy’s female companion was very acceptable and everything was going well, except that when they initially met she assumed that he was Polish and for the hell of it he complicated the situation by talking to her in broken English. However as the evening progressed the Polish act became a strain. Now the sensitive soldier was reluctant to reveal himself, concerned that the lady would assume he was making a fool of her and take offence. He enjoyed the pleasure of her company so much that at the last minute he was tempted to confess and suggest another meeting, but the coward couldn’t muster enough courage and they parted company never to meet again. Another ship passing in the night!
On the subject of courage and the fair sex, Billy got into a conversation with a female telephone operator and established that they were both about the same age and height. Over the phone he was very brave and also ascertained that she was good looking and had a nice figure. He was honest about his own appraisal, which was acceptable to her, and they arranged a rendezvous outside the movie house in Sheffield the following Saturday afternoon.
The young lady also informed him that he could view her photograph, which was in the middle of a photographer’s window on the way to the movie house. Arriving by train from Chapeltown Saturday afternoon, Billy anxiously made a beeline for the photographer’s shop, confirming that the girl was not exaggerating her appearance. Then for no apparent reason on his way to the meeting, trepidation set in and he was concerned that he wouldn’t have an opportunity to evaluate her before committing.
He was obviously over sensitive and decided to allay his anxiety by walking past the movie house without stopping, attempt to see what she looked like and then return.
As Billy entered the crowd outside the movie house a beautiful girl stepped forward in his direction with a look of recognition on her face. Billy was now programmed to continue walking, which he did and realizing that the girl exceeded his expectations, quickly turned around to find her. No such luck, she had departed, never to be seen again! He searched the area thoroughly and couldn’t understand how she could disappear so quickly. Where did she go? How did she go? - He will never know!
One thing for sure is that he kicked himself all the way back to camp and repeated the punishment frequently. It was a classic case of stupid boy doesn’t meet girl!
The sentimental journey to Chapeltown in 1992 was another disappointment, because many things were very different. How dare they change things in just 45 years! The mountainous side of the town where the camp was located was completely covered with houses making it impossible to identify exactly where the camp used to be.
There was a large supermarket at the main intersection, which was another reminder of the passage of time. The one feature that had not changed and was recognizable was the unique entrance to the park, where he practiced his broken English on the unsuspecting female.
Finding the pub where Billy and his Polish friend enjoyed an occasional glass of ale presented a problem, because he only remembered one on a stretch of road of about 300 yards and now there were three. The fact that all the pubs appeared equally as old was evidence to the fact that his memory had failed him. The first pub at the beginning of the road was so different from his image that he rejected it out of hand. He wasn’t too sure about the next one, but he popped in for a drink anyway and before he finished his beer he knew it wasn’t the place. The last one was closer to his image, but still not recognizable, so again he entered and ordered a drink. He searched the area with his eyes like a detective and realized that walls from smaller rooms had been knocked down to make one large one, which was not unusual. Typically the young barmaid knew nothing about the anything and was even less interested, so he sat down in a corner by the entrance to enjoy his drink. Within minutes he became aware of the unusual seating arrangement, which consisted of very unique benches around a table. Immediately he was overcome by a feeling he had never experienced before in his life and although he was not religious, he knew it was spiritual. He then realized that this was the place were he sat with his friend 45 years before, only then it was a much smaller room. The experience was an epiphany!
Trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together before leaving, Billy crossed the street to study the pub’s exterior, but couldn’t come to grips why it differed so much from his image. He engaged a lady of mature years in conversation and she recalled that they altered the appearance of the outside of the pub when they renovated the inside. The fact that they did such a good job maintaining an old pub appearance accounted for his confusion.
Having resolved that important problem, but still yearning for a little more nostalgia, Billy stopped an elderly gentleman and pointing his finger towards the houses on the mountain asked, “Do you remember the Polish soldiers camp up on the hill?”- “You mean the German prisoner of war camp,” came the sharp reply. Attempting to continue the conversation Billy told him that he didn’t realize that it was once a German prisoner of war camp and without so much as by your leave, the old gentleman shuffled on. It’s anybody’s guess what he took exception to, but Billy got the feeling that the man must have thought he was a returning German ex-POW, which didn’t please him. With his thirst for nostalgia quenched, Billy rather sadly stole away into the night.