Sixty years ago the young women of Sutton Bridge were on the dance floor with some unlikely partners – prisoners of war.
The men, interned in the camp near the river Nene, were allowed to ‘fraternise’ with the locals after some years had elapsed.
Suddenly, men who had been fighting for the Germans were mixing freely with local men and women at dances and other social functions, and it would seem they were received very well.
A number of marriages resulted and some of those people are still alive, many in their late 80s, and some still living locally.
One of them is Hans Heib (88), of East Bank, who says: “We were young and handsome and the local girls came to the dances. We mixed with English boys as well.
“I can’t describe what it’s like when I started to socialise. To be fenced in all the time is not very nice for anybody. We could do what little could be done in the wires, but there was no freedom and that’s a big thing and that hurts more than getting a slap across the ears now and then.”
Hans, who was born in a community of 5m Germans living in Romania, was captured in 1944 and sent to Fort Knox for 18 months, before being transferred to the UK and a series of prisoner of war camps, ending up in Sutton Bridge in 1946.
There, the men – and Hans believes there were about 300 in the camp – were initially working on the land. Hans says: “Hundreds of thousands of us were the main food production machine because Britain was hungry.”
Having experienced the freedom of working on the land, Hans was reluctant to switch to his own trade, barbering for the men in the camp.
By 1947, the men were free during the day, on contract to work on the land, and free to socialise with the locals.
It was then he spotted Audrey near the Bridge Hotel and “gave her a bit of a smile”. The next day that progressed to chatting to her, and the couple ended up marrying in 1950. They had two children, two grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
The men were finally released in 1949 and many returned home then. Hans was one of about 40 men who opted to stay in Sutton Bridge, many because they came from countries behind the Iron Curtain and were not free to return without restriction until 1966.
Hans set up a barber’s shop in 1951 and only closed it seven years ago when he was 81. Sadly, Audrey died ten years ago.
Hans says: “I have had an interesting life and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I have been happy. I can honestly tell you I have never ever had an enemy in Sutton Bridge. We got accepted by the community.
“I left home at 14 and I have always been my own man.”
Heinz Radeloff has the distinction of being the last prisoner released from the camp at Sutton Bridge.
Heinz (87) was on the submarines, in charge of ammunition, and was forced to surrender in 1945 and report to an English port.
His recollections of the camp is of it being “all right”. He says: “I did a lot for other people. I couldn’t speak English very well and I was with a gang of women potato picking and they didn’t think I could speak enough English to know what was going on. I was leading the horse, because at that time everything was manual labour.”
His main concern, however, was for his mother and sisters at home. They lived close to the border with Poland and were forced overnight to abandon their home when the borders were moved and the Czechs took control of the land.
The camp held dances and it was at one of these that Heinz met Rene – they have been married for 63 years.
Rene’s memories of the prisoners are: “They were all right. There was a lot of them, but they were all lovely. When we had our engagement party most of the Germans from one barrack came. A lot went back to Germany.”
In fact, Heinz did go home but, unable to find work, returned to Sutton Bridge “for a year or two” until the job situation improved.
He worked on the land, doing jobs like strawberry picking, but ultimately returned to his own trade as a painter, decorater and sign writer.
He and Rene married, despite initial concerns by her father, and went on to have a son, and now have two grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Unable to get a council house, even though Heinz says several were empty in Sutton Bridge, the couple built their own bungalow in Anne Road and have been there for 47 years.
Rene had a grocery shop in the village for 16 years, and so both of them became well-known in the community.
Heinz says: “What we have got, we have worked for ourselves. We don’t have to thank anybody for anything. I have been happy. The people in the village were all OK and we have many friends.”
Rene adds: “They call him Sutton Bridge Boy now.
Hunger has always been a major driver in the life of Stefan Artanan.
It forced him out of hiding on one occasion, and he ended up being captured and forced to fight in the Second World War for the Germans.
He was a young boy when the Germans swept through the Ukraine taking any man or young boy going spare, and his mother tried to protect him by telling him to hide.
Ironically, Stefan ended up fighting against his older brother, who had been compelled to fight for the Russians two years earlier.
Stefan promised himself he would never starve again after his earlier experience and, a few months short of his 18th birthday, acquired a second birth certificate that made him old enough to receive a man’s full rations as a prisoner of war.
He was lucky to make it to the camp at Sutton Bridge. When Germany was forced to surrender, prisoners were given the choice of going with the Americans or the Russians, who would have either shot him or sent him to work in the Siberian salt mines.
Stefan was handed over to the Americans and then the British and spent time in various UK camps before arriving at Sutton Bridge.
His daughter-in-law Eunice Artanan says: “He was sent to work on a local farm and he fell in love with the farmer’s daughter.”
That was Mary, formerly Brundle, now sadly dead.
Stefan (86) farmed there until he retired and his son Andrew took over, although Eunice says Stefan still helps in any way he can.
She says: “There was no communication with his family back home for fear of what the Russians might have done to them and he never got to see his mum again.
“His last image of his mum was her running up the road with his coat for him.
“He has been to the Ukraine to see his sisters, but now he’s the only one left.
“He’s unshockable. He doesn’t show his emotions and we think it’s because he saw so much.”
For instance, Stefan has told his family of the German commander who, angry that some men refused his order to return to work because they wanted to finish their cigarettes, simply took out his gun and “they were blown to smithereens”.
Eunice says: “I think he was quite well looked after at the camp but the adult ration was obviously bigger than a child’s.
“When he was 65 and the NFU chap he had his pension with came to see him and asked for his birth certificate, Stefan asked which one he wanted.
“He has two birthdays because he changed his date of birth to get the bigger ration.”