Wes Skerik, Prisoner of War
February 25, 1944. 425 Squadron RCAF, "Alouettes," leave England on a night mission, part of a force of 594 aircraft tasked with destroying the aircraft-manufacturing centre of Augsburg, deep within Germany. It is only the squadron's second mission since switching over to the big, four-engine Halifax bombers from the older, two-engine Wellingtons. Twenty-one-year-old Wes Skerik, of Lister, is in one of the planes. He and his crew mates are wondering if they will actually reach Germany this time; in their first mission, a week before, the plane had an engine filure over the English Channel and turned back.
The mission itself was a success, but twenty-one of the aircraft never returned. Wes’ was one of those.
Near Darmstadt, Germany, on the approach to Augsburg, searchlights picked out the bombers flying overhead. Flak from anti-aircraft guns burst around Wes’ plane, and an enemy fighter attacked. As the big bomber fell out of the sky, Wes and his crew bailed out. Wes recalls, “I landed in a front lawn. A woman was hollering and people came around. I tried to pick up my chute, but it was hopeless. 32 square yards of silk – there was no way to pick all of that up.”
"We were taken to the police station with no boots. Gene Fullum [one of the bomber’s crew] joined us, but he had a broken back. We were taken in the back of a pickup to Frankfurt, to Dulag Luft Transit Camp. We were interrogated there. On February 29 we were put on a train box car. There was a wire fence across the car on each side of the doors, and about twenty-three to twenty-seven POWs in each end with guards in the middle.”
On March 6, Wes, the rest of his crew, and many other prisoners arrived in the prisoner-of-war camp at Heydekrug, East Prussia (now Lithuania). They were there for four months, but in July, the tide began to turn on the Russian front. Russian advances into German-held territory prompted the relocation of the prisoners, and on July 18, Wes recalls, they were loaded into boxcars again and stuffed into Stalag Luft 357 at Thorn, Poland. During their three weeks in Thorn, Wes says, “We had to take turns pumping water for showers, and the water was ice cold!”
Stalag 357 was evacuated on August 8, and four days later Wes and his comrades arrived at their final stop of the war: Fallingsbostel, Germany. By mid-1944, there were 96,000 prisoners in camps in and around Fallingsbostel. Wes recalls as many as 2,000 in his particular section, which was reserved for air force prisoners: rows of fifteen or twenty double bunks lining each side of the room, sixty to eighty men to a room, six rooms in a row, and four rows. “The camp was in the middle of three German cities,” he recalls, “Hamburg, Bremen, and Hanover. Every time one of those cities was bombed, we could hear it. We knew from that, there were still people going, they weren’t all in the prison camps.”
The Allied bombing of Germany resulted in widespread food shortages that were certainly felt by the prisoners at Fallingsbostel. Wes recalls sharing Red Cross packages every week, which helped alleviate the shortages. He’d been in the camp for two months before they got their first mail, and a month later, on November 2, the first cigarette package arrived.
Wes recalls that on January 14, 1945, his camp was raided by the Germans in retaliation for reports of poor conditions for German prisoners in British camps in Egypt. The men of Wes’ camp were herded out of their rooms at gunpoint. Their tables, chairs, and straw mattresses were taken away; German rations and the Red Cross parcels were cut.
It helped having news of the outside world. One of the prisoners sharing Wes’ room, John Bristoe, made a radio. He used tin cans and scrounged whatever he could from the guards. Wes recalls that one day, Bristoe went running down to get the mail, brought a package back to the room, and opened it up. It was a tin of tobacco, and when Bristoe melted off the lid, Wes says, “Out came a radio tube! He had that radio sitting underneath something. It was right under the Germans’ nose, and he never got caught.”
“There were only certain guys allowed to handle it,” Wes remembers. “If there were too many, they would have got caught. They’d go in at night and get the news. They only wrote it down on a couple of slips, and then they’d go around to all the rooms and tell the news. We all knew better than to let it show that we knew what was going on.”
They knew the war was drawing to a close, but, on April 7, before the Allied troops reached them, Wes and 12,000 other able-bodied men from Fallingsbostel were put out on a forced march. “We kept hiding and moving around until they [the Allies] got us. We were put up in barns, and in one barn we got into a storage of potatoes. We sure ate! We lost a bunch of prisoners everyday, escaping.”
Near the end of April, Wes and the other prisoners were lined up on the bank of the Elbe river, waiting to cross. A flight of nine Typhoons of the Royal Air Force, mistaking them for German troops, strafed them. “The flight engineer, one of the Englishmen in the crew, was killed,” Wes recalls. “The tail gunner, Dick Curnock, was sitting right beside him, but he was fine.”
“We got across the river and after two or three days marching ended up in a barn,” he continues. “We were three or four days there, then came Armistice Day. The German guards put all their weapons down. May 4, 1945 the Royal Dragoons, a Scottish army troop, released us. That first night we got released, the Royal Dragoons came in and there’s strawberry jam and white bread, and, jeez, we hadn’t had anything like that for so long. I guess I just ate too much. I was sicker than a dog - I was sick for three days.”
The prisoners scrounged around and found enough German vehicles to convoy all the prisoners to Luneberg, Germany. There they were deloused and given new clothes. On May 11 they flew back to Bournemouth, England.
Wes says, “I was a little scared when I got back to England and they couldn’t find my name. They looked me up among the Flight Sergeants, and they couldn’t find me. Finally he grabbed another book and looked it up, and there it was. That’s when I learned I was a commissioned officer. My commission had come through the day I got shot down, but it never came through to Germany. Otherwise, I would have been taken to a different camp, one for officers.”
In Bournemouth, decked out in his brand-new officer’s uniform, Wes met up with Nelson Foss, who he’d originally met shortly after arriving in England in 1943. With two weeks leave, the two of them decided to visit Ireland. “We got to Glasgow, Scotland, we went to a house party and that is where I met Mae Duncanson. We went out together seeing Glasgow and parties. Fourth day we came back to Bournemouth, waiting to come back to Canada – never got to Ireland.”
In July, Wes and Nelson boarded the Ile de France for the return journey across the Atlantic. He got his discharge from the Air Force in Vancouver, and then came home to Creston. He worked on the West Creston Ferry for years, beginning in 1947, and took over the family dairy farm in Lister after his father died in 1958.
“I used to write Mae in Scotland and kept in touch. I got a letter from Mae saying she would come over and marry me. So I sent her $500. She came over, train to London, air to New York, Toronto, Winnipeg, Lethbridge to Vancouver. I had a place for her to stay a couple of weeks, then we came to Creston.” The couple were married in Creston on August 9, 1947.
In 2005, a restored Halifax bomber, recovered from a lake in Norway, was unveiled at the RCAF Memorial Museum in Trenton, ON. It is the world’s only restored Halifax, and Wes was there to see it unveiled. “It was big,” he recalls. “A lot bigger than I’d remembered.”