Burns’ Night on the Oder, 1945

Once in a while we all need some escapism. Some reach for a Terry Pratchett, others pick up an Agatha Christie to get their minds off the cares of the day. My escapist reading is, well, it’s literally escapism. Ever since I was given a copy of Donald Caskie’s ‘The Tartan Pimpernel’ when I was about 11 I’ve loved to read escape stories. Colditz(Pat Reid), Boldness be my Friend(Richard Pape), The Wooden Horse(Eric Williams), The Great Escape(Paul Brickhill), The Latter Days at Colditz(Pat Reid again) are some of the great Second World War escape titles. The Escape literature of the Great War inspired many of the prisoners of WWII to pit their wits against their captors. Many escapers of the ’39-’45 war had grown up reading such classics as The Tunnellers of Holzminden(Hugh Durnford), The Escaping Club(A.J. Evans), Outwitting the Hun(Pat O’Brien) and determined to make a ‘Home Run’ themselves.

As I read more and more of these stories, I began to have a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. As I finished one title I started to think ‘What if I’ve read all of the escape books out there? What will I do if there are no more?’. Amazingly though these stories have kept appearing right through the late twentieth century, well over fifty years from the end of the war.

An elderly gentleman with what looked like crippling arthritis in his hands bought several Italian Language books one day 4 or 5 years ago. I asked him if he’d lived in Italy and he told me that he’d been captured in North Africa and had been a POW in Italy until he’d walked out of his Camp when Italy withdrew from hostilities in 1943. He had then gone on the run from the Germans(like Eric Newby in his classic ‘Love and War in the Apennines’) and survived in the mountains until the Allies fought their way up Italy and he was able to cross the lines. He told me that he had nearly finished his memoirs and they were due to be published before long.

So these books are still being published and I’m always delighted when another turns up in the shop.
Just last month, in an auction lot, I came across one called ‘Open Road to Faraway – Escapes from Nazi POW Camps 1941-1945’ by Andrew S. Winton (Cualann Press, Dunfermline, 2001).

From the Biographical Note – ‘Andrew Winton, from the small village of Woolfords near Lanark, was a student at the Edinburgh College of Art before enlisting with the RAF soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. Shot down over Germany on 30th September 1941, he spent the next four years attempting to escape back home to his beloved Scottish moors. Each escape was, however, short-lived. Following one escape of seventeen days, he experienced the horrors of Buchenwald Concentration Camp – the worst few days of his life. The final stage of the war was fraught with hazards in the chaos that followed the German retreat.

Andrew’s love of [Robert] Burns’ poetry frequently sustained him in captivity.’
On the run after his final escape which involved being buried alive in a shallow grave, Andrew and his escaping companion managed to cross the fluctuating battle lines and link up with the Russians.

Sometimes amazing things happen in war such as the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914 and Andrew Winton tells of a remarkable evening he experienced on the banks of the River Oder in July 1945. The following is an extract from Chapter 21 of his book.

Burns’ Night on the Oder

On and on we went, allowing nothing to hinder the drive to Berlin. Two days later, the only large obstacle on our way was the River Oder which was partly frozen over in places, with many of the bridges mined. The weather was atrocious; an inch of snow on side of our coats helped to keep us warm, but still it came, almost horizontally, driven by a very strong wind. We reached the river and drove into a large State farm where six tanks took up places on the open side, facing outwards, ready to move. We were inside a large courtyard with out-houses on each side for vehicles and storage for hay and straw. We slipped into a corner in the section of straw and booked a bed. Fired were being lit all round the open yard and clothes and coats were hung up on makeshift hangers to unfreeze and dry out. A large boiler of very thick soup arrived and we were allowed to fill up dixies. This was indeed very satisfying. We settled back in the straw, a bit drowsy and then a voice, a girl’s voice was heard.
‘Where is the Scotsman?’
I felt the hair on my neck rising, and wondered, ‘What next?’ I struggled to my feet, and there she stood, second-in-command of a Russian Women’s Tank Unit, a round muff hat on her head and looking very neat and official in a dark green uniform. She addressed me directly.
‘Do you know what week this is?’
Just a little bewildered, I shook my head.
‘This is Robert Burns’ week, and tonight you will recite his poetry and sing his songs. I will translate for all these people.’
My mind flashed back to my primary school. I was, for the first time, thankful for that ‘old Cooke’, the headmaster there, had driven me by fear of his tawse to learn and sing Burns’ works.
‘I do not know,’ I started to say, but was stopped by an imperious wave of a hand.
‘All my relations in Scotland can recite and sing our national Bard – where do you begin?’
Between twenty and thirty had gathered round our fire, and were told, ‘Andrew from Scotland will entertain.’ I took a step forward, dropped on one knee, scraped around as if I was catching something, picked up a handful of hay and stood up smoothing it in my hand into a small ball and started.

‘Wee, sleekit, courin’ tim’rous beastie,
O, whit a panic’s in thy breastie.’

I stopped, and the girl translated, and so I carried on, one line or two at a time. I missed out a verse here and there, but I finished the last two:

‘But mousie, thou are no’ thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain,
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft agley.’

The reception shook me. There was clapping and smiling and nodding: a complete understanding, and so I gave t hem ‘To a Daisy’. Next, the girl did some explaining before a cook came in with a large sausage.. I addressed the ‘haggis’, cut it into slices. Many came up, took a slice and went back and sat down facing me – they obviously wished for more. I walked round the front row, stopped beside a fair-haired girl, put out my hand and asked her to come forward. She assented (without knowing what was wanted) and we walked back to my stance. We turned round. I nodded to my interpreter, and began:

‘O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.’

Line for line I said it, and slowly walked her back to where she had sad and then, in a very quite voice I began to sing.

‘And fare thee weel, my only luve,
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.’

Well, the applause was terrific. If this is what they want, I’ll be here all night, I thought. I’d better give them something else, and so I began again with the translation continuing until the last verse.

Is there for honest poverty
‘For a’ that, an a’ that,
That man to man the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.’

Everybody stood up, shaking hands. Given a signal, they all sat down.
‘I will sing a song of Robert Burns,’ announced the second-in-command whose relatives had lived on the banks of Loch Ness, and who until this point had been translating the poems.
A trained voice sang out ‘Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon’ in a language they all understood. On the second verse I joined in quietly, ‘la, la, la’ to the end, then she added, ‘We will sing it as Burns wrote it.’

‘Ye banks and braes. . .’

I sang the words in a low contralto, as I had heard it sung in the Hall at home. On the second verse, she took my hand and we wandered dreamily across the front. I smelled the briar and heard the birds singing. She pulled a rose and I pretended to put it into her hair and we finished the song in unison. There was a second or two of complete silence before everyone jumped up, clapping and chattering, touching each other, moving around us and trying to shake our hands. The numbers had doubled and they were all milling around and laughing with pleasure. I was completely shattered. Here was I, shut in which a group of people who had travelled hundreds of miles in tanks fitted with guns, with the sole intention of wreaking vengeance on a country that had dared to destroy them; and a freezing wind blowing snow from the Baltic ocean bringing everything to a standstill and kindly covering the dead and dying women and children lying in groups along the roadsides. And a sad little song with a Scottish air and words by Robert Burns, written two hundred years before, had changed the world around us!
I was uplifted and a bit dazed, and yes, I was proud – a sort of humble pride, pleased and delighted – and then two hands on my shoulders turned me round and my hands were taken in hers and an emotional voice spoke, ‘Tonight I am your Jean: tonight you are my Robert.’

Andrew Winton died just a few years after his book was published. Thanks are due to Cualann Press and Mr. Winton’s family for permission to publish this extract.