Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In escape from a miner's life, soldier found himself in prison camp

Denys Cook kept a secret diary during his five years as a German prisoner of war. Photographs by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 11, 2009


Denys Cook’s fighting war ended with him facing the business end of a machine-pistol held by a German solider.

After uneasy days hiding from the enemy around Boulogne, France, Mr. Cook, a sergeant in the Welsh Guards, knew he had no choice but to place his hands in the air.

The gun was pointed at his gut. His captor spoke to him in English.

“For you, Winston Churchill boy, the war is over,” he said.

Winston Churchill boy?

He later realized the German had seen the patch on his shoulder, misreading his regiment’s initials for those of the British prime minister.

The date was May 24, 1940. What would be the bloodiest conflict in human history had yet to complete its ninth month. Mr. Cook, aged 20, spent five long years as a prisoner of war.

Mr. Churchill had become prime minister of a coalition government only a fortnight earlier. Behind barbed wire, Mr. Cook belatedly learned about Dunkirk, Dieppe, Pearl Harbor, and Stalingrad.

By the time of the D-Day invasion in June, 1944, he was better able to keep up on war news through the ingenuity of his fellow prisoners. The subterfuge nearly cost him his life.

Mr. Cook is 89 now, a tall man with a long face framed by a beard and a sea curl of wispy white hair that crosses his brow like foam. His voice still carries the lilting cadences of the Welsh valley that was his birthplace.

His father and uncles returned from the mines each day as a dark as the night sky, bathing in a zinc tub before having the evening meal. Only after forming a union did the miners get showers at the mine head.

The boy knew he wanted nothing to do with coal.

“It was useless work. Underground, dirty work. The people were slaves to one man.”

He ran away at 13, working for several years as a kitchen boy for the family of an English teacher. At 17, he enlisted in the Welsh Guards, an athletic lad desperate for regular meals in those dark, Depression days.

He became a physical education and small arms instructor, becoming schooled in the use of rifles, mortars, bayonets, hand grenades and machineguns.

As Europe teetered towards war in 1938, he was ordered aboard a troopship. He thought he might be sent to defend Czechoslovakia from Germany’s appetite, though appeasement left him assigned to Gibraltar, where the garrison was being reinforced lest the Spanish dictator be tempted to snatch a British possession.

The time on The Rock would later seem a dream. A tall, lean athlete, Mr. Cook was assigned duties as chef lifeguard.

“My uniform was swimming trunks, a pair of plimsolls, and a pith helmet,” he said.

The revery did not last long. Ordered back to England, he was dispatched to France as the German army tore through Belgium and the Netherlands.

Not long after landing at Boulogne, amid the chaos of retreating Allied forces, Mr. Cook was captured, ending days of close scraps with snipers. In those frantic hours, he had to abandon a friend whom he had seen lying face down in a ditch, the back of his head a bloody mess.

He would see death on the battlefield, on the railroad cattle cars transporting prisoners, in the camps.

The sergeant’s initial reaction at arriving at prison camp was to flee. But the camp at Marienburg, within sight of the medieval Malbork Castle, was in Prussia, far away from any frontier offering refuge. Escape was impossible.

He began to keep a daily record, a diary he had begun shortly before capture when he recorded an incident in which one of his soldiers deliberately shot off his thumb to avoid facing combat. The blast left the sergeant deaf in his left ear.

Packages from home helped stave off starvation, as a diet of potato soup did not provide near enough sustenance for each day’s hard labour. A nonsmoker, Mr. Cook traded cigarettes for food — five buying an egg, 25 a pork chop.

The thousands of British prisoners brought with them all manner of skills, both ancient and illicit. “We had every profession,” he said, “except prostitution.” He taught himself shorthand, a skill that attracted the attention of the men who had built a radio inside a working record turntable

It became his duty to transcribe broadcasts about war news. To be caught with a working radio was a death sentence.

On one nerve-shattering day, a German guard spotted Mr. Cook wearing a headset while scribbling in the odd hieroglyphics of shorthand as a record spun on the turntable. Challenged, Mr. Cook took off the headset and offered the guard a listen. In that moment, a colleague flicked a switch on the machine, replacing the radio feed with that of the platter.

He had another, happier, shock while a prisoner. He spotted the friend he had last seen in the ditch with a grievous wound.

“What the hell,” Mr. Cook said, “I left you for dead.”

The men renewed their friendship, which would continue after the war.

As the Soviet armies approached, the prisoners were force marched to the west. Mr. Cook and a handful of compatriots fled in hopes of finding American or British troops. He was liberated in Bavaria, spending six weeks recuperating in a Canadian-run hospital. He weighed just 98 pounds (44.45 kilograms).

He became a policeman after the war before immigrating to Canada in 1957. He eventually became superintendent of Alberta law enforcement, retiring in 1973. He also became a prominent artist.

Today, the basement walls of his Esquimalt home are lined with his art. He still has the two prison diaries he wrote in a miniscule hand, the better to preserve scarce paper. Mr. Cook also has the manuscript of a memoir he wrote immediately after the war, a book yet to have found a publisher. For many years, his family knew little about his wartime experiences. Even the unpublished book was a secret. Now, a granddaughter is at work on a documentary.

He plans to take a few minutes this morning to reflect on those who did not make it home from the war. He has never attended a Remembrance Day service and does not plan to start doing so now.

He blames politicians for starting wars and hears enough from them without having to do so on Nov. 11.

“Yes, there has to be some remembrance,” he said. “But for me personally it’s a bad time, so I don’t go.”

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