"The Ritual of the Daily Head Count"

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Here is part 5 in our series of recollections by Canadian Lt. Leo L. Hamson, regarding his time as a guard at the Wainwright POW camp. (minor typos corrected; Col. Hauk might actually be 'Hauck')

(Update: The full set of Recollections is back online, with photos.)

The Ritual of the Daily Head Count

I shall never forget my first participation and supervision of the daily head count. As it was winter, the POWs were assembled in parade formation in the large drill hall. Some distance away two guards stood facing each other two paces apart. In line with them and about twenty feet further along, stood a third guard. I paced slowly about watching the procedure and looking important as the duty officer. As our bored charges filed in and formed up, I eyed them with a curious mixture of curiosity, awe, respect, and resentment. We had just come through the greatest man-made catastrophe ever inflicted on humanity, and for us these were the guys that did it.

Did those Luftwaffe airmen lined up over there take part in the blitz against defenceless, peaceful Rotterdam, rain bombs on civilians in London Bristol, and scores of other cities, and devastate non-military cultural centres like Bath, Exeter, and Canterbury? I thought of all the friends and class-mates I had lost. I had to struggle to repress these thoughts and focus on the job I had to do.

I learned later that some of these men had been prisoners for five years - most of the war - and could not have been involved in the later horrors. Large numbers were members of the Afrika Korps, captured in North Africa after the defeat of Rommel in 1942 and 1943.

When they had all formed up, nearly a thousand German officers from all branches of the service, they made quite a spectacle in their various uniforms. I wondered why some were immaculately turned out with their medals and decorations as though for inspection by the Fuhrer, while others looked sloppy and careless in old sweaters and shirts. Were the former the career officers, and the latter the unwilling who had been swept up in the war? Some chatted with those next to them, others read books or magazines, while still others stared vacantly at the floor or ceiling. They looked very different from the disheveled, hungry, battle-shocked prisoners in tattered uniforms that we had rounded up when German resistance collapsed.

When all were assembled, the sergeant barked an order and the first rank of prisoners filed between the two guards facing each other, and then past the guard further on. Each guard silently counted. When that rank was finished and formed up at the far end of the drill hall, all three guards compared their counts. If they disagreed, they were marched though again. I then entered the figure on my clip-board. The total of POWs varied slightly from time to time, but during my tour of duty it was 956. That number is burned in my memory. God help us if we could only find 955! That total would never be paraded in the drill hall. Some would be on sick list, others at work in such places as the kitchen. Runners would make the rounds to include them in the total. During the count, Col. Hauk, the senior German officer responsible for discipline, and spokesman to the Canadian commandant, stood on the stage.

The prisoners would not be dismissed until we were satisfied that all was in order. Any count disagreements or delays meant they had to stand there for long periods, and this of course irritated them. I was told that while the war was still on, some prisoners passing by the counters would quicken their pace and even start doubling up to confuse and harass their guards. But unless this was a ploy to cover and gain time for an escaper, it tended to raise the ire of their fellow prisoners, because they all had to stand there while the count was repeated.

On one memorable occasion we were one short. We counted them all again, and scouts, including some POWs, were despatched on a search of the camp. As tension and the tempers of the standing POWs mounted, they glanced through their ranks speculating who was missing. A murmur rippled through to me…. “It’s the little engineer!”

Then I remembered our most unusual prisoner - unusual because he was a civilian and no-one seemed to know why he was in this camp for German officers. The story was that he was the engineer on a train carrying German troops that got shot up by R.A.F. Typhoons and was then surrounded and captured by British troops. They did not know what to do with the civilian locomotive driver, so scooped him up with the military prisoners. He ended up in Wainwright. He was a very short stocky man, and naturally conspicuous among his uniformed fellow prisoners.

As time dragged on and some of the prisoners sat on the floor, Col. Hauk paced the stage angrily, and asked to speak to me. He said that since we knew the identity of the missing man, there was no reason for not dismissing the parade. I refused. Standing Orders had to be followed.

Finally, the large double doors of the drill hall opened, and we were treated to a most unusual sight. Silhouetted against the outside daylight, two large Germans marched in. Between them they carried the little engineer by the arms, his legs pedalling the air off the ground. The ranks of the POWs parted to let them pass, and they hurled epithets at the cause of their inconvenience. They marched right up to the stage and plunked the trembling man on the floor in front of Col. Hauk who glared down at him with legs apart and fists on his hips. It turned out that the searchers had found him sitting fast asleep on the toilet.

I dismissed the parade, and as they filed out I walked over to the stage and stood behind the cringing engineer. The colonel looked at me and said crisply, “I shall take care of the matter, Lieutenant.” That was my cue to depart with my clip-board and my assistants, and as I went out the door I glanced back and saw the colonel still glaring down at the wretched engineer, and I wondered what punishment would be meted out. I hoped Col. Hauk had a sense of humour.

Copyright 2004 by Leo Hamson; used with permission

Related Posts:
   1. Page 2: The last morning count (May 21, 2010)
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