Pte Thompson’s grave

Assistant Curator, Steve Erskine tells us how, after a painstaking process, a soldier’s final resting place is about to be properly marked.

“They say that the dead tell no tales.  Well, sometimes they whisper.

4392030 Private George Henry Thompson was, like so many thousands of others, swept up into the tumultuous events that led Europe to war in 1939. Perhaps not a remarkable man, perhaps he never had chance to make his mark.  But, we know him as more than just another soldier.

Born on 4 April, 1919 at Tynemouth, at the time of his enlistment on 16 October 1939 he weighed 127lbs, was 5ft 8¼ tall and had blue eyes and brown hair. He had a small mole on his upper left arm and the letters ‘GT’ tattooed on his right forearm. Before enlisting he worked as a glazier and he lived with his sister Elizabeth at 16 Penman Street in North Shields.  Such is what we know of George and, thanks to his Service Record, we can at least picture him in our mind’s eye.

Initially posted to the depot at Richmond he was eventually sent, on 28 February 1940 to the 4th Battalion with whom he went to France. Private Thompson was captured at Athies on 23 May 1940 during the retreat to Dunkirk.

The 23rd was hot and sunny and the men of the 4th Battalion were tired. Sniper and mortar fire gradually increased during the day until at 7pm a large enemy force breached the defences and with Athies in flames, the Battalion retired to a ridge behind the village leaving a small party in the attic of the Estaminet under 2/Lt Kirby to watch the approaches to the village. The defensive position on the ridge was manned by HQ Company and any stragglers that came in. Pressure built on the flanks of the position and small groups of the enemy had got in behind the position leaving no choice but to withdraw in the direction of Fampoux.  In this ad hoc and confused defence, George was taken prisoner.

George was sent to Stalag XX(A) a camp south of Torun (now Toruń in Poland). The ‘camp’ consisted of a number of forts in which various nationalities were held – Fort 13 held British POWS. Airey Neave (of Colditz fame) was a prisoner at Stalag XX(A) at one point.

In early 1945 the Soviet advances into Poland forced the Germans to move POWs from prison camps toward the west, this became known as the ‘Long March’. Prisoners were forced march through the depths of winter without adequate clothing, supplies or even the most basic medical treatment. Disease, hypothermia and the cruelty of the guards led to significant casualties, despite the protests of senior officers about the condition of POWs and their treatment.

George Thompson was one such casualty.  Post-war testimony by others in the prisoner column confirmed that he died of dysentery near the small German town of Wittenburg, south-east of Hamburg. His final resting place was not recorded (or any record was lost) and he was listed as ‘Missing’ on the Dunkirk memorial.

His Red Cross Card had the note ‘Died (per Newland)’. The Red Cross Card for 4390092 Private A. R. Newland showed that he too had been a member of the 4th Battalion and he too had been a prisoner at Stalag XX(A).  Was Newland George’s mate, and did he have the sad duty, on his own repatriation, to have to confirm the death of his friend?

The brutality and callousness of some German guards resulted in a number being prosecuted for War Crimes. An Affadavit by a S/Sgt Aitken of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, who was what was known as a Man of Confidence (effectively liaison between prisoners and their German captors) in the column in which George was marched toward Germany, testified to the particular cruelty of a Hauptmann Mackensen of the 1/714 Landschutz Battalion. He swore that…

“Three men were shot in the back after having been recaptured on their attempting to escape [though he noted, having seen the bodies] one of them was suffering from a swollen ankle and could not possibly have been trying to escape.

The column was made up of about 560 British and 1200 Russian prisoners. Walking through snow 3 to 4 feet deep, in temperatures of minus 25 degrees over distances varying between 25 – 45 kilometers a day with sometimes only 4 steamed potatoes a day per man, men became exhausted and many lost fingers and toes to frostbite. Aitken noted that 30 men from his section of the column died..

The men that died … either died at night after a long days march from malnutrition or dysentery, or in a few cases after being broken up by the guards [a euphemism for a beating]. Some died during the day on the one or two farm carts carrying the sick. Men too sick to walk and falling out were broken up by the guards before being allowed to ride on a cart.”

Aitken was in no doubt about where responsibility for the callous treatment of prisoners lay.

“The man responsible for the column and who must be held responsible to the courts on atrocity commissions is Hauptmann Mackensen.”

Where he could Aitken tried to give the men a decent burial. Men were …

“…buried under my supervision. Particulars were given to the Burgomaster for registration of graves and a cross was promised in every case with the man’s name on it.”

Years later, Steve Foster, whilst researching his fathers’ time as a POW on the Long March, visited northern Germany.  Passing through Wittenburg, he visited the civilian cemetery and there he found a grave marked simply as Unbekampt Englander Soldat (An unknown English soldier).  Knowing the story of the Long March he wondered, could this be George Thompson’s final resting place? He got in touch with the museum and, together, we started to investigate.

No military action had taken place at Wittenburg, there were no records of any British soldier being involved in a fatal accident in the area; the only explanation was that a POW from a column on the Long March was buried in the plot and, given this logic and these circumstances, we concluded this must be George Thompson’s last resting place.

The case was put to the Ministry of Defence Ministry of Defence (Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre).  They set the bar high when it comes to convincing them to re-dedicate a headstone so long after the event.

But the case was a strong one and whilst they were not prepared to go all the way, they have agreed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission can replace the German headstone with a CWGC headstone which will read ‘Believed to be buried here…’

We have tried to trace next of kin, using local papers, radio and asking for details of the case to be read at various religious denomination service in and around North Shields, all in the hope that family would come forward.

Sadly, at this point in time, George’s headstone will be re-dedicated without any direct kin, though the Yorkshire Regiment will be there, on 21st April at Wittenburg cemetery, to see George’s ‘bit of a foreign field’ properly marked.

Mackensen did duly stand trial for his treatment of the defenceless men in his charge in that…

‘…in violation of the laws and usage of war, was concerned in the ill treatment of Allied prisoners of war on a forced march from Thorn in Poland to the Hannover area in Germany, as a result of which ill treatment at least 30 prisoners of war died. …The accused was in charge of the column in question, that the prisoners had little food, no cooking facilities, no heating in billets and no medical supplies, and that one prisoner was wounded and another shot dead.’

Mackensen originally pleaded ‘not guilty’, but seeing the weight of evidence against him he changed his plea to ‘guilty’. He was executed at Hameln prison on 8th March 1946.

Soon, George’s name will be removed from the wall of missing servicemen at the Dunkirk memorial.

It’s taken some unrelated family history research, more than 70 years, and a certain amount of persuasion, but Private George Thompson’s whisper has finally been heard.”

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