During World War II, Clarence Adams, a soldier with the British Royal Artillery, endured being held as a prisoner of war by the Germans for nearly five years.
Adams will turn 101 on July 27. Adams will accompany Don McCue, director of A.K. Smiley Library, at the Redlands Rotary Club’s dedication of D-Day’s 75th anniversary on June 6.
“I must confess I’m worried he’s going to steal the show, as usual,” McCue joked.
“No, I won’t,” Adams laughed, “I’m not going to say a word.”
At his home in Highland, Adams sat down at his kitchen table to recount his memories of WWII. Books, documents and scrapbooks filled the table. Adams has kept excellent documentation of his history.
Adams was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1918. His father was a coal miner and his mother a housewife. Clarence was the youngest of eight siblings.
Adams’ father, a World War I veteran, also was taken prisoner of war. Although Clarence said that he couldn’t recall his father ever talking about his experiences during the war, he does remember visiting him in military hospitals where he was being treated for the effects of gassing.
When Adams was 14, he completed school and started work as an apprentice joiner.
“I was a carpenter in England,” Clarence said, “I was joiner, really, but most Americans don’t know what a joiner is.”
A joiner is a trained craftsman who makes or joins wood, usually in a workshop. A carpenter constructs the timber on site. In many cases, a joiner makes the wood that a carpenter then fixes on site.
Adams was drafted into service in the militia, and when Britain declared war in 1939 he became full army.
Off to France
After completing his training in February 1940, Adams was shipped to Cherbourg, France. After that, Adams’ entire camp was moved to Leseurre, France.
When the Germans broke through Belgium and Holland on May 10, Adams was sent up the line to join the unit on May 15.
Although many British soldiers were captured at Dunkirk, there were other support areas behind German lines — mainly in Belgium and the corners of France.
“It was early in the morning, just getting light, when we marched down to the station at Fort Leseurre and the train didn’t pull in until it was dusk,” Adams said.
They were headed for Arras, France.
“When the train started out, there were so many threats of air raids, we jumped out of the trains and scattered into the fields. Then we would climb back onto the train. It took five days until we pulled into Armenienne.
“I got off the train onto the platform and the whole platform was covered with dead British soldiers from previous air raids. They were stacked in tens. Three this way, three that way.”
When the air raids started Adams dove under a railroad car.
“There was a young officer on the opposite side of me,” he said. “When the air raids stopped, he ran. And then I ran.”
Further down the tracks Adams heard somebody calling out for help; the man calling was a Grenadier Guard.
“The coach had just fallen on him, there was blood coming out of his mouth,” Adams said, “I got him out from underneath the coach and he said, ‘It’s no use, you staying here. But leave me your water bottle.’”
“So I just put my water bottle where I could reach it and I left him,” Adams said.
“I didn’t know what to do. I thought I’d go back to Fort Leseurre where I had come from. I ran down the track until I got to the bridge over the River Somme,” Adams said.
He was unsure if he could cross the bridge over the river — not knowing what would be on the other side. He took to the road and walked to a place where he could cross with other refugees.
He walked for five days until he got back to Fort Leseurre. At night, Adams slept wherever he could in the cities he walked through, many of which had been evacuated.
“You could just go through the front door, go down to the cellars and get the wine. Every French family seemed to be making their own wine,” Adams said.
When he got back to Leseurre everybody was gone, but tents were still pitched. He decided to keep walking. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Adams was heading toward Rouen, France, where he would be reunited with British soldiers.
Adams was staying in a farmhouse with some other British troops who had been separated from their units. A couple of days later, German tanks entered the area.
“We all got ready to move,” Adams said, “I asked the major in charge, ‘Where do I go? I’m all by myself.’”
The major told Adams to go with a group of Irish soldiers. The farmhouse was bombed. Wounded men were brought outside and left on the ground.
The men climbed toward the woods and stayed there through the night.
“About three-quarters of the way toward the woods a machine gun opened up somewhere,” Adams said, “so we got down and we crawled the rest of the way in.”
The next morning, the men that Adams was with split up into small groups.
“There were seven men in my group. One day I was leading the men, I moved back and another man took my place.”
“We were walking along the side of a fence, and we heard just one shot. The bullet hit the new lead man in the shoulder,” Adams said.
The men found another farmhouse to stay in with some French soldiers. They stayed there another night.
“The next morning a French girl brought us boiled eggs, toast and coffee,” Adams said, “I hadn’t finished eating, and I saw the tip of a bayonet coming up the ladder followed by a German helmet and a head.”
“The head said, ‘Hands up!’ in perfect English,” Adams said, “And so we were prisoners of war.”
“They took us down the ladder and we stood with our backs to the barn and on the opposite side of the courtyard was a German sergeant major next to a Frenchman on a bicycle, so It looked as if while the French girl was bringing us breakfast the man had ridden into the village and brought the Germans back,” Adams said.
The men were loaded into troop carriers by high-ranking German officers. “Each troop carrier held 12 men,” Adams said, “There must’ve been over 50 German soldiers that took us prisoners of war.”
Under German control
The Germans took their prisoners to Bouchet, France.
“They put us into a garage and the German cook sent us a big bowl of soup full of meat,” Adams said, “more meat than I’ve ever eaten before I believe.
“Looking out of the garage we could see the Germans coming into the café, drinking beer,” Adams said.
Throughout that day, Germans marched in hundreds and hundreds of more French and British prisoners of war.
“The Germans just pushed us into the line of march,” Adams said. “We were on our way to Germany, walking.”
“The third day on the march – I wasn’t walking in line with the rest of them I was on the side of the road just a little bit,” Adams said, “A German soldier came up behind me and he nicked me in the rear end with his bayonet, just to be mean, I suppose.”
After that, luckily, a German medic put Adams into a carrier.
“I was off the march,” Adams said.
A couple of days later they got into Amenienne.
“That was on June 22, the same day that the French and Germans signed an armistice,” Adams said.
The next day they crossed into Ghent, Belgium, where they boarded small Dutch trains headed toward Germany.
“The Dutch people were really good to us,” Adams said. “They make a lot of chocolate so we ate a lot of chocolate.”
Then they were packed onto German trains.
“We were packed like matchsticks,” he said. “We couldn’t move it was so tight.”
They were taken to the end of the Maas Canal, where they exited the trains and were given bread rations before getting on barges to cross the canal.
They traveled under the famous Nijimegen Bridge — the same bridge where his brother-in-law would be killed four years later. They got off he barges in the town of Wesel.
Hauled off in boxcars
The prisoners were put into boxcars headed to Germany, 40 men pulled by eight horses. They were given no food. They boarded yet another train, and when they got off they were in Lamsdorf where there was a prisoner of war camp called Stalag VIIIB.
“We called it Lamsdorf, not Stalag VIIIB,” Adams said.
Adams wasn’t aware that the Germans, in a blitzkrieg “lightning war,” had captured Dunkirk at that point. He didn’t find out until some time later. Adams was eventually joined by British troops that had been captured there in POW camps.
“I was still confident,” he said, “I never once thought that Britain would lose the war.”
After spending 10 days in Lamsdorf, Adams and around 55 other men were put on a train and taken through Germany to a small town called Ratibor. They were put into an irrigation work party.
Adams showed his carpentry expertise, and was subsequently put in charge of repairing tools. After that, he was sent off to repair wagons on a nearby farm.
During the winter, the prisoners worked in an iron foundry making parts for trains and infrastructure. They were back on irrigation projects in spring.
Adams reflected on some of what they endured during that time.
“They put all of our clothes into a big oven,” he said, “just like the ovens they took Jews into later. They gave us a shower and cut off all of the hair from our bodies.”
According to Adams, the amount of food they were given was “not enough to live on.”
By 1941, around the time that the Germans and Russians entered a war, Adams’ group was down to 50 men. They were divided into groups of 25 and moved once again. Adams was initially meant to be transferred to work in the coal mines, but his carpentry skills helped him in being sent to an airport in Breslau instead.
The fake airport
Adams and the other workers were directed to build a camouflaged airport that the Germans intended to use as a decoy for Allied bombers, so that they would bomb the camouflaged airport instead of the real one.
A German officer took Adams aside, knowing of his skills, and ordered him to make toolboxes.
“I thought he was probably selling the toolboxes. They were definitely not for the military, I suspected they were for the black market,” Adams said.
The German officer paid Adams in cigarettes, which he later used to trade with other artistic prisoners of war in exchange for portraits of his wife Olive. Adams never smoked cigarettes.
Later, Adams was moved to Waldenburg with another work party. They went to work at a glass factory there. The quarters they stayed in during this time were finer than anything they had experienced as prisoners of war.
When asked if he ever thought about making an escape attempt, Adams said, “We used to sit around in groups and talk about escaping. About two or three men did escape for a short time. But they would always come back.
“There was no way of escaping and they would just walk back into camp after a day or so.”
Adams was put into a tischlerei, a joiner’s shop, where he repaired wooden shoes that glass workers wore to protect their feet.
“In the glass factory, anybody that worked with glass or carried glass had to wear wooden shoes,” Adams said, “because if the glass fell on their feet, it would break the shoe but it would not hurt their foot.”
“I would cut the bottom off, stick a piece of wood on there and then re-shape it the same as these wooden shoes,” he said.
Adams spent three and a half years working in the glass factory. One day, Adams was given a job with a man that he said “was like a father” to him.
His job was to make blackouts out of wood for the whole factory to block out views from the windows and the walls and put sliders on them. They also built blackouts for furnaces, so that they couldn’t be seen from the sky.
“That’s what I did until the war ended,” Adams said.
The German man that Adams worked under was a WWI vet. He told Adams stories about British soldiers that Germans had taken prisoners of war in WWI.
“He told me a story about some British prisoners of war he said, ‘They were dressed like women,’” Adams said, “He thought that was so funny. Back then some soldiers wore kilts. He told me that story almost every day.”
According to Adams, the German officer that he worked for while he was a prisoner of war in the glass factory was quite kind to him.
“I would take off and walk around the factory and he never said a word about it,” Adams said.
Slogging through the snow
But by mid-February of 1945, the glass factory had been shut down, and the workers were ordered to move out.
The troops moved over the Carpathian Mountains through the snow in the harsh winter. The first night they stopped and stayed at a coal mine where there were already some French prisoners of war who had lice.
“Our greatest fear was getting lice because they carry typhus,” Adams said.
On the march, the only food they got came from Red Cross boxes; the Germans did not feed them.
“We had no food whatsoever,” Adams said, “Just nothing. And the guards didn’t have any food either.”
Eventually Adams and his group made it back to Nuremberg, which had been heavily bombed over the course of the war.
“The people, they were walking around like zombies,” Adams said, “Their eyes were sticking out, the place was constantly bombed. No matter which way you looked you couldn’t see one building that hadn’t been hit.”
The troops were marched into Zeppelinfeld, where Nazi’s routinely held rallies before the war. The field was filled with big tents.
“We just scattered out and camped down. Then they just started bringing in prisoners until there were thousands or British and American prisoners of war.”
During this time, there were air raids over the camp.
Someone in the camp had a radio, so the prisoners were able to get some news of the war.
In April 1945, the prisoners were moved out on the march again, heading away from the front line. That same day, they learned that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died.
“We left on the 12th of March, and we were liberated on the 29th,” Adams said.
The troops had crossed the Danube River.
“One day, when we had been staying in another barn the guards didn’t wake us up,” Adams said, “They just left us.”
A Pole who was working on the farm told them the American tanks were going by on either side of them, “and so we were liberated.”
When Adams finally made it back to England, he and his wife were reunited. The two had corresponded throughout the war. Clarence and Olive Adams immigrated to the United States in 1949. Adams now belongs to the American Ex-Prisoner of War Association, and he’s the only Englishman in the group.
“They weren’t favorable of me joining the group. Most Americans were jealous of my accent,” Adams laughed.