Veteran recalls being captured as prisoner of war weeks after D-Day

A veteran who was captured as a prisoner of war just weeks after D-Day and was forced to march hundreds of miles was brought to tears as he remembered being reunited with his mother 10 months later.

Ken Hay almost did not make it back home to Barking when he “lay down to die” as he fell during the three-month march, but his friends came back to help.

The 98-year-old, who served in the 4th Dorset infantry regiment, went to Normandy on June 22, then was on night patrol on July 8 when he was captured and forced to work in coal mines in Poland.

Mr Hay said his first feelings after he was captured were “dread” and “fear”.

“We went out on night patrol, was supposed to be doing a blow up of a self propelled gun in no man’s land, but in fact, it was behind their lines,” Mr Hay said.

“So they let us through and then very unfriendly, they sealed it and wouldn’t let us back, so we had a battle.

“We had 30 went out on our patrol, 16 including my brother, who was a corporal, got back, five of us got captured and then presumably nine got killed.”

They were then moved to Falaise, Alencon and Chartres and then at Chartres Mr Hay said they were put on the “wagons” where they stayed for six-and-a-half days.

He said: “We were put in that, 40 men and a lidded dustbin for a toilet.

“And we started and we had that for six-and-a-half days and nights with very little food and of course, we all got dysentery trying to get water through the griddle.

“We stopped out in the country each morning to empty the bin.

“It was all very degrading. You had to do it in front of the other guys sitting there.”

When they arrived in Aachen they were registered as prisoners of war, Mr Hay said, then after a week or so they were taken to Cieszyn in southern Poland.

From there they were moved to Zabrze where they worked in a coal mine.

Ken Hay
Ken Hay is an ambassador for the British Normandy Memorial (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

Mr Hay stayed working in the coal mine until January, when on January 20 he said there were no miners in the coal mine because of the Russian advance.

He said they refused to operate the mine so were left down there for eight hours.

The next day, the same thing happened, the day after Mr Hay said he was told they were moving.

Mr Hay left the camp on January 23 and marched “all day and all night”.

“I say marched, we were slipping and sliding because it was very cold and ice and snow,” he said.

“We did reach a camp with British prisoners in it, they made us tea because it was a sugar factory.

“But we were only there for about an hour and then we moved on, and we never found another camp.

“We marched, we had a rest day every five or six days.

MEMORIAL DDay
(PA Graphics)

“It sounds ridiculous now, we marched from the 23rd January to the 20th April.”

Mr Hay explained how his friends helped him when he fell during the march.

“On the march, I lay down to die actually, because if you fell down in the snow, you just went to sleep and froze to death,” he said.

“And I fell out because my leg was hurting too much.”

Two of his friends came back for him.

He said: “If they hadn’t, I’d have just gone to sleep, and apparently you die,” he said. “So they lifted me, arm around each shoulder.”

Mr Hay added: “We went down through the bottom bit of Poland, into Czechoslovakia, up towards Dresden but just below Dresden.

“All the signposts were up so you knew roughly, although we didn’t know where the places were, but looking at the maps afterwards I traced it.

“We went across, below Dresden and then down into Bavaria.

Ken Hay
Ken Hay told of the emotion of his return home (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

“On the 20th April we heard gunfire from the west, didn’t know whether it was Brits or Americans, turned out to be Americans, so we said we wouldn’t march the next day because the war was finished.

“The German officer wouldn’t accept that but he said we’ll have a rest day and we’ll march tomorrow, but of course that night the guns were that much nearer we could hear rifle fire machine guns and so on and he accepted that the war finished.

“And we waited, and then on 22nd of April which was a Sunday, two American tanks turned up and took our guards prisoner and we were technically released.”

Mr Hay was flown to Reims in northern France and while there had his first shower in three months.

He said they were then dressed in American uniforms as theirs was burned due to it being lice-ridden.

Mr Hay was flown to Dunsfold on May 4 1945, given British uniforms, then two days later took a train and a bus home to Barking.

“Getting the telegram, my mother told everybody, just everybody, that Kenny was coming home and even including, we don’t have them now but we had a milkman,” he said.

Mr Hay became emotional as he recalled seeing his “little fat mum” coming towards him from his house.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

He said: “As I turned the corner of the bus, I could see somebody at my house coming down, there’s a little council estate, and he looked, and my mum had told everybody that Kenny was coming home, including the milkman, and so he turned around and went back, knocked on the door.

“And one of my sisters came to the door, ‘is this your brother coming home?’ and she (said) ‘yeah, it’s Ken!’ and my whole family, including my little fat mum, came running.

“They came running down the road to greet me.

“They were having breakfast, I’d had breakfast with the army, so I just had a cup of tea with them and we all went off to mass.

“I’m a Catholic, and we all went off to mass and I was home in time for VE Day on the 8th of May.”

Mr Hay, who now lives in Upminster, said he gives talks to schools as he believes it is his “duty to pass it on”.

He said he answers questions from the students, adding: “How old were you? Were you frightened?

“There’s the bloodthirsty little sods who say how many Germans did you kill? And you say ‘we never ask that question and we never answer it’, I mean Prince Harry does, but we won’t go into that.”

The veteran plans to travel to Normandy for the 80th anniversary.