German POW Peter recounts gaining festive freedom and building new life in North Herts and Beds after Second World War
PUBLISHED: 19:01 08 December 2017
Starting out in an unfamilar town is difficult at the best of times, but for one man – a German who had come to North Herts after been captured in the Second World War – being granted freedom at Christmas sparked a host of events that changed his life forever.
It’s 1946, the year after the Allies declared victory in Europe. As many as 400,000 German prisoners of war remained in Britain after the fighting ended, with 300 based on Royston’s Therfield Heath.
Ernst-Wilhelm Peters, known as Peter, was a prisoner of war at the heath’s Camp 29 for around six months, only being let out to work as a labourer on farmland and in the town before being granted partial freedom around Christmas that year.
Apprehensive about the hostility he might face as the former-enemy, he was actually met with kindness and warmth from the North Herts community, something which has stayed with him forever.
He told the Comet: “We arrived by train in May or June, little did I know that this small town would be the beginning of a complete change of life for me.
“Every morning at 8am, we assembled outside the gate to wait for the lorries that would take us to farms to work.
“We were driven back to camp at dinner time. The only snag was that we were behind the wire, and could only observe ordinary life from there.”
Peter’s English improved tremendously throughout his time working on farms, but he hadn’t been free to roam about until Boxing Day 1946.
He said: “We had a very pleasant surprise when Major Shaw allowed us to go to town for a few hours – limited freedom at last.
“A friend and I donned our best uniforms, and walked out through the gate without being stopped by the sentry.
“We saw an elderly gentleman in High Street dapperly dressed coming towards us.
“He smiled and said: ‘frohe Weihnachten’ – which means merry Christmas.
“Just imagine our surprise! He said he learned German as a youth working in our country. He then invited us for a cup of tea.”
Peter met his future-wife Edna when he went along to the town’s summer fair in 1947.
He was eventually granted full freedom and he married Edna and they had daughter Elizabeth.
He said: “After about 10 years of working on the land I was able to change our lives through the help of the former vicar of Arlesey who advised me to go for work as a ward orderly at Three Counties Hospital – a psychiatric institution, now Fairfield Park.
“As we could not afford accommodation I lived in the male nurses home, Edna in the female home, and Elizabeth lived with a young couple with a daughter in House Lane, prior to entering boarding school later in the year.
“We saw her every spare moment we had.”
Peter sat exams while working at Three Counties, Addenbrooke’s and Lister hospitals – he then worked at the latter while studying a post-graduate course.
Peter said: “Edna and I loved Hitchin, especially the swimming pool, where we met often when I was on split duties, and we enjoyed the market with the China King, the Heritage cinema, and meeting ex-patients in the street.
“We, the nurses at Lister, were always acknowledged and greeted by the local people and in the shops. I still have my hospital scarf, by which we were always recognised.
“We then moved to Lynton Avenue in Arlesey – Elizabeth was happy in Royston and preferred to stay there with her close friends.
“Edna and I got out to explore the area on my Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle whenever we could.
“I remember going to Baldock, Bedford, Biggleswade, Old Warden with its interesting clock, Henlow, you name it we got to know it.
“We could not afford exotic holidays – due to the poor salaries – but we were happy throughout our lives, all three of us.”
Peter had a long career in nursing and he and Edna eventually moved to Devon to be near Elizabeth, their grandchildren and great grandchildren.
He said: “Unfortunately Edna, my lovely Royston girl, passed away in April – leaving me with happy memories of our 70 years together.
“I shall always remember the Christmas of 1946, and my introduction to the hospitality of the citizens of Royston.
“Finally, I would like to take the opportunity to wish everyone a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.”