by Arthur Royall
“For you the war is over”
For me personally the Brunswick story began on Tuesday 26th September 1944 at Arnhem in Holland, where, in the early morning I became a prisoner of war. The story which I wish to tell did not begin with me, the events that it records would have happened even if I had not gone to Brunswick that last autumn of the war.
It so happened that after being taken prisoner I travelled for some weeks, very uncomfortably, in crowed railway tucks until one night, after a long march from a railway station I arrived with others at the entrance of Oflag 79, a prisoner of War camp for British officers on the outskirts of Brunswick. We were courteously welcomed by the German Commandant who told us that “for you the war is over.” The gate in the tall fence, festooned with barbed wire, closed behind us.
The Camp – a hive of activity
The camp was a set of dreary barrack buildings sited close to the autobahn, an underground factory manufacturing jet aircraft and to a small disused Luftwaffe airfield. Earlier in the year the camp had received attention from American bombers attacking the factory which had led to the death of several officers and not improved either the look of the place or the standard of the amenities provided for the residents. Within this camp, with its barbed wire perimeter fence in which at intervals watch towers were set, there was a community of 2500 or more British officers gathered not only from the United Kingdom but also from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, together with a sizeable number of Viceroy Commissioned officers from the Indian Army. There was also a small contingent of other rank POW’s who acted as orderlies.
The camp was a hive of activity. Learned societies abounded and many of the inmates were studying for professional examinations coached by fellow prisoners. Talented lecturers could draw sizeable audiences for courses such as “The Growth of Parliamentary Government” and “Political Theory”. There was a dramatic society of outstanding quality, an orchestra, and believe it or not, a night-club named “The Rum Pot” at which “Tommy Sampson (in black tie) and his Dance Band” performed regularly. Matters spiritual were not neglected. The Church of England, Church of Scotland, United Board (Methodist, Baptist and Congregational) and the Roman Catholic Church all had regular services and a Hindu Temple and Mosque provided for the needs of the Indian officers.
I began my theological studies under the tutorship of one of the eight Anglican Chaplains – my tutorials with Padre Geoffrey Young, with whom I am still in touch, took place as we pounded up and down the concrete bath alongside the barbed wire fence. I was admitted to membership of the Theological Society and as a member was under obligation to attend daily worship in the small Anglican Chapel in a basement of the barrack buildings.
Daily life in the camp
In the autumn of 1944 life in Oflag 79 was austere and lacking in creature comforts but it was not unbearably uncomfortable. At the time of our arrival half a Red Cross parcel a week was being issued to every prisoner and together with the sparse German rations, we got by without suffering too greatly from the pangs of hunger.
However, in the months leading up to Christmas things changed considerably and noticeably. The RAF and USAAF were conducting a round the clock bombing offensive against Germany and the country’s communication system was under constant attack. The success being achieved by the allied air forces did of course result in a drastic drop in our standard of living. Red Cross parcels simply did not arrive – our rations were meagre in the extreme, understandably so. At a time when German civilian rations were tight, those of the enemy prisoners of war were going to be much tighter. What we did receive was not very substantial, palatable or varied. German rye bread, a few potatoes, pea soup, sauerkraut and twice a week Goon (German) stew in which there was a hint of meat. What each man received did not measure up to the official scale of rations laid down by the Red Cross. We very quickly began to feel hungry and because we were hungry we felt the cold. The twice daily roll calls held outside whatever the weather were to say the least, unpleasant. In earlier days when the weather was reasonable these roll calls were sometimes deliberately prolonged by making the counting difficult for the Germans, numerous recounts had to be take place and this annoyed the officers carrying the count. Now no one felt like prolonging the roll calls!
We felt cold not only because of the lack of food, but also because the Germans were heating the buildings for only a few hours a day. The heavier and more prolonged the air raids, the shorter the time that the heating system was switched on.
After Christmas things quickly became more uncomfortable but it must be said that Christmas itself was memorable as there was a real spirit of good will to be felt. We decorated our rooms, the brass section of the orchestra played carols around the camp and there was carol singers. In return for our parole given by the Senior British officer there was no curfew on Christmas Eve and no roll calls on Christmas Day. The large basement room used as a chapel for the midnight Eucharist was full, not another person could be squeezed in and there was a queue outside the door. When we came into the open after the service the moonlight was shining on the icicles hanging on the barbed wire fence. Friends visited each other and many of us who were among the “new boys” received small gifts of tobacco from the more long-term residents. As a pipe smoker I was rendered speechless to receive a tin containing about half and ounce of shredded tobacco from someone’s carefully hoarded fag ends! I had a Christmas pudding made out of some hoarded stale black bread, with a few pieces of dries fruit in a mixture dampened by a little dried skimmed milk. The mixture was placed in a KLIM tin (dried milk) and heated over a small tin oven, another KILM tin fired by shavings of wood sliced off our bed boards, and you had to be careful with the fuel supply, if the bed boards became too thin the bed collapsed. My pudding was substantial, edible, but very, very heavy and gave me acute stomach ache – but every last crumb was eaten.
Once Christmas was over, although morale did not plummet, most of us began to feel sorry for ourselves and tempers became, on occasion a little frayed. The coldness of the winter days and shortage of food took its toll, sickness increased and a genuine lack of energy and lethargy resulted in some diminution of activities: the Camp pantomime was one of the casualties and after only two performances the curtain was rung down on this, the last theatrical performance, given in Oflag 79. We all yearned desperately for the end of the war, we dreamed of home and food.
It would be wrong to suggest that we were in the depths of despair or that we were all drowning in a sea of self pity, but one had to work hard to maintain one’s moral. We spent more time on our bunk beds trying to keep warm, we took less exercise and although our sense of humour did not desert us, it was at times a little strained. However, there were that who coped with the depressing circumstances of the time more objectively than others, amongst them was Percy Flood who, perhaps more than anyone, looked beyond his captive circumstances.
If I were preaching a sermon, and I am not, I would have a text upon which to hang my words – but as I said, I am not preaching a sermon – nevertheless I have got a text – words of St. Paul ” Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”, just keep them In the back of your mind.
Percy Flood was a regular soldier – a Major in the Royal West Kents – a former regimental sergeant major who had been commissioned early in the war. He was a man of deep religious faith – a person respected by others whether or not they shared his faith.
It was Percy Flood with whom the Brunswick Story properly begins. It was in his times of quiet reflection on the circumstances in which he found himself living and his thoughts of the future when captivity would end, that Percy conceived the idea that the prisoners of Oflag 79 should create a memorial which would show the world outside that the time spent in the camp was not wasted. In other words he wished to see the “Kriegies” of Brunswick bring good out of evil – to create something that would be a reminder of the comradeship experienced in the camp during a long period of enforced idleness, deprivation and discomfort.
Percy’s idea, vision if you like, took shape – he reasoned something like this. “Here we are citizens of circumstances that our not of our own choosing. Our surroundings are sordid, sanitation is primitive, we are crowed together in bomb damaged buildings, there is little opportunity for exercise and at this time we are hungry and cold”. “But”, he went on, “the amenities that we miss and long for are denied to many boys in our country even in peace -time. Let the officers in this camp set to work now to found and endow a Boys Club in one of our cities, perhaps London, for some of the boys who will be the Men of Tomorrow and who need opportunities to develop their potential. Let this Boys Club be a memorial to the comradeship we have shared in our captivity and let it be a living memorial to those of our friends who have fallen”.
Percy quietly shared his idea with others, as an individual he was not a high profile publicist – these others shared and talked over Percy’s vision yet with others. There was approval and enthusiasm for the idea from those with whom it had been shared. Doubts had been overcome and the enthusiasm was not superficial or a flash in the pan! The idea had to be commended to the Camp and the support of a large number of individuals had to be won and it was not going to be easy.
New Year 1945 – camp meeting
It was January 1945, icy winds blew through the camp, roll calls were painful, many prisoners lacked warm clothing, rations were meagre in the extreme, chiefly swede or turnip soup and rye bread provided by the Germans, Red Cross parcels were a thing of the past. In such circumstances it would not be easy to persuade the sceptical Kriegies to back a vision. The doubter and bloody minded would emerge, there would be difficult questions to answer and there might be enough cold water to douse the flame of vision.
However, the group who had been captivated by Percy’s vision and who now shared it were determined to win the support of their fellow prisoners. First it was decided that there would need to be a public meeting open to all in Oflag 79, at this meeting spokesmen for an ad hoc committee would commend the idea and suggested Trust Deed (prepared by officers, who were solicitors, largely without access to law books). A vote would be taken for or against the scheme.
A Camp Meeting was called and held on Wednesday afternoon 14th of February in one of the large attic rooms running the length of the barrack block. It was a cold day, the windows in the attic were glass-less and the afternoon was the time when very many of us tool to our beds and tried to keep warm. But in the minutes before the appointed time people began to make their way individually, in pairs or in small groups to the meeting place. Each individual came with a long legged stool over his shoulder and a blanket under his arm. There was an attendance of several hundred.
The chairman of the meeting, Lieutenant Colonel James Dunnill, explained the proposal and asked those present to give their support to the scheme. The foundation of a Boys Club by the officers of the camp would, he said, carry on the great tradition by which British officers gave a high priority to the welfare of the men they commanded: it would perpetuate all the was best in the daily activity of a British officer.
There were of course questions, comments both helpful and unhelpful but for the most part discussion was on a serious level. One could, I think, sense genuine support for what was proposed but so far no one had harnessed the goodwill that was present. A spark was needed to ignite the enthusiasm that was present beneath the surface and set it on fire with commitment to the vision that Percy Flood had experienced and with which he had enthused others. Then in a crucial moment of silence a young paratrooper private, one of the camp orderlies, got up and said quite simply but with great conviction: “I know what you are talking about. I’m and East End boy. Before I joined the army I was a member of the Eton Manor Boys’ Club at Hackney Wick. It gave meaning to my life and opportunities I would not otherwise have had. If you officers go ahead and do what is proposed, you will have done something more worthwhile than you realise”
The Beginning of boys club – raising funds
After that intervention there was no need for further discussion, the flame had lit, the enthusiasm and commitment surfaced. A vote was taken, the proposal was overwhelmingly accepted, a committee of Trustees was elected and the task of securing and support of those not present, raising the money and in due time building the club had begun.
The committee to work with a will and the whole prison camp took up the project with real enthusiasm. Appeal literature on a limited scale was designed and produced wholly by hand. Two representatives were appointed for each company to explain the scheme more fully. A “Boys Club Office” was opened immediately for three hours daily except Sundays.
Funds and other offers of help came in on a scale for which the sponsors had not dared hope. Money was promised freely and spontaneously. Raffles of one kind or another were held. A tin of “bully beef” carefully hoarded by one prisoner was auctioned and raised £50. A hundred cigarettes fetched £100. Artists painted pictures and sold them. But of overwhelming importance was the personal visitation of every resident in the camp by two representatives asking for a donation.
At last the great day came. The “American Cavalry” in jeeps arrived and Oflag 79 was liberated. It was the 12th April 1945. Members of the Boys Club Committee had by then collected £13,000 chiefly of course in the form of manuscript cheques, IOU’s and Bankers Orders on scraps of paper – several hundreds of pounds a year had been promised in annual subscriptions. A great deal of money in those days – equal today to about £175,000.
The astonishing thing is that all but £5 of the sum promised was paid – the scraps of paper were honoured. I am told that the fiver that did not materialise was that promised by an ex POW who shortly after his repatriation was killed in an accident.
Within ten days of our release we were on our way home, Dakotas flew onto the nearby disused airfield and took us to Brussels, a night in a Reception Camp there, flying onto England the next day. With others I spent a night at an Army Camp at Taplow. When the evening meal was served we showed, I think, commendable restraint for the second vegetable was swede.
After a reasonable and understandable interval the Boys Club Trustees went into action. The task was to found a Club in an area of a large city that needed such a facility. The intention was clear, the money was available and all that was lacking, or so it was thought, was “know how”. Sensibly it was decided to seek the help and advice of the National Association of Boys Club.
Like most of the great voluntary organisations the NABC had had a lean time during the war years, its officials and club leaders were serving in the forces, building had been destroyed or damaged and little money was available to keep things running. The war in Europe was only just over and the war in the Far East still continued at the time, a boost of morale was needed. Brunswick provided the boost. The Brunswick story became the pivot or centre piece of a National Campaign aimed at assisting and revitalising the Boys Club movement throughout the country.
A National “Brunswick Appeal” was launched by Field Marshal Montgomery and Prime Minister Clement Attlee at a function at Mansion House. A publicity film, in which John Mills appeared, was made and shown countrywide. Members of the Brunswick trust spoke at Public Schools, professional Societies, Rotary Clubs and the like. The appeal raised about £300,000 of which Brunswick Trust received a welcome 5%.
But what of the Club to be founded and supported by the ex POWs of Oflag 79? It was not forgotten amongst all the arrangements for the national Appeal which aimed at helping clubs nation-wide. It was decided that the Club should be in London, this it was felt would make it accessible to ex POW supporters, especially those from overseas who might visit London in the future. But where in London? The London Federation of Boys Clubs suggested an overcrowded area of West London, Fulham, which had no major boys club to serve it. In the past, areas like London’s East End or Notting Dale had drawn into their areas many clubs and missions sponsored by Public Schools and Oxbridge College Mission. The centre of Fulham was a somewhat depressed area and had suffered substantial damage during the Blitz.
A site was found by the North End Road street market. Originally occupied by rows of small terrace houses which had been demolished by enemy action, it was clear except for a large static water tank. An architect was appointed, plans drawn up for a club building and an application to build submitted to the appropriate government department.
There began a period of frustration, the application to erect the club was refused point blank. Attempts to persuade the Ministry of Education to reconsider its decision met with no success. In 1947 I completed training as a Boys Club Leader, I had been offered and had accepted the appointment of a Club Warden from July that year. I was leader of a Club without buildings or members. Frustrated in our attempts to build on the site earmarked for the club, I searched the district for premises that could provide temporary accommodation but with no success. The only empty and suitable premises belonged to a government department, and when approached we were firmly told that hey were being retained for an appropriate reuse. Five years later these pre-fabricated buildings, much dilapidated, were still empty and in fact they were never used again.
It was then after months of failure to make progress, the break-through came. At a meeting of the Trustees someone had a moment of inspiration. “Why don’t we write to the Prime Minister”, he said, “after all, he launched the national Brunswick Appeal and he is a former Boys Club Leader”. I was given the task of writing and did so the next day. My letter stressed the fact the he had publicly commended our initiative and backed the Brunswick Appeal and here we were with the money, a site, a leader and no building. By return of post I received a letter from 10 Downing Street which said: “The Prime Minister asks you to re-submit your application to the ministry as soon as possible”. This was done promptly. Within a week we received a license to build the club and a government grant of £12,000. Apparently you couldn’t get a license for an educational project without also receiving a grant. The trustees were very happy to accept such financial support and their gratitude to Mr. Clement Attlee was and remains immense.
Work started almost immediately on the erection of our pre-fabricated club building. This included a large gymnasium which was housed in the sort of corrugated iron construction used as a hanger by the RAF. The work was completed by September 1948 and the first twenty numbers were enrolled. There was a waiting list for membership, our policy was to add to our numbers slowly, consolidating our way of working and enabling the boys to feel that they belonged. We were unashamedly elitist, we endeavoured to give the boys a chance to try out and improve their own leadership qualities.
In the very early days we received an unpublicised visit by the Duke of Edinburgh. With two boys as his guides he toured the Club, talked with the members, examined the amenities, and before leaving commented shrewdly on what he had seen and made some helpful suggestions.
11th July 1949. The official opening
The Duke returned the following summer when on the 11th July 1949 he officially opened the Club. The gymnasium was packed – a large number of visitors, many ex-Brunswick POWs and ninety boy members. A late arrival was a tired looking Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who came from 10 Downing Street having just declared a State of Emergency occasioned by the Dock Strike. The Club featured in the 8 o’clock BBC news the following morning. “Having declared a State of Emergency, the Prime Minister was present last night at the opening of the Brunswick Boys Club in Fulham”.
Sitting inconspicuously in the body of the Hall with other Trustees was Percy Flood. He had not in the dreary, cold, hungry days of the 1944/45 winter allowed himself to be overcome by evil, but had overcome evil with good. His vision had been realised. In the dark days of captivity he had enabled others to rise above their understandable self-concern and commit themselves to provide amenities for the Men of Tomorrow.
Completely rebuilt once and enlarged on two subsequent occasions the Brunswick Boys Club still exists and seeks to provide for some of the needs of the boys of Fulham. Some of the original trustees are still serving and the names of a number of the original subscribers still appear in the annual list.