PoW recollections both chilling and comical
Samuel Houghton seldom spoke of his four years as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, and threw away most of the medals he later received.
There are few former inmates from Germany's Milag Nord camp still alive. Mr Houghton, who died on February 19, was just out of his teens in 1941, when he became a prisoner of war. In later life, he preferred to keep quiet about what happened there.
“You'll find a lot of guys like that from that time,” his son John explained. “Most of the guys in his opinion who came through alive didn't think they had earned any special treatment.”
A merchant seaman aboard the oil tanker MS
Canadolite ironically, a German-built vessel Mr Houghton was captured with the rest of the crew by the notorious raider
Kormoran, off the coast of Sierra Leone.
Originally a merchant ship the
Kormoran (“Cormorant”) was Germany's largest merchant raider. She sank ten merchant vessels before capturing Mr Houghton's ship and taking the crew prisoner.
Only an Atlantic Star remains of the four medals given to Mr Houghton by the Canadian Government, in recognition of his subsequent years in Nazi Germany. But the wartime log kept by prisoner 93342 testifies to the personal importance of Mr Houghton's captivity, which lasted until April 8, 1945.
A pastiche of drawings, carefully-lettered lists and smuggled photographs, the book was put together from a Red Cross issued log, given to prisoners of war. Mr Houghton kept it as a repository of the war memories that coloured the rest of his life.
“He was a great father, just a nice man,” said John Houghton, recalling that his father moved the family to Bermuda from Quebec in the 1970s, when nationalist extremists began to use bombs.
“Once they started blowing things up, he said, 'That's it. Been there, done that.' Being a chartered accountant, he picked Bermuda, and for most of his career he worked as an accountant for JS Vallis.”
The Smith's resident, survived by his wife Nora, occasionally shared memories that ranged from the chilling to the comical.
“There were Gestapo and SS officers at the camp,” Mr Houghton said. “With 5,000 prisoners in pop's camp and another 5,000 just down the road, they were all there trying to get information. And they weren't nice about it. He said the creepy part about seeing an SS officer going past was, when he looked at you, all you saw was the skull. They wore that insignia and kept it shiny.”
Punishments included being forced to stand undressed in the snow. At one point, something happened that deprived the senior Houghton of about 80 percent of his vision in one eye.
But the prison log is also filled with handwritten bills for theatre productions, and his son recalled his father's flair for brewing liquor from rations.
“They would trade one cigarette for the three prunes that came in a parcel, then trade the booze back for three cigarettes.”
Mr Houghton said his father had also hid the identity of a Polish prisoner, since they were often singled out for brutality, and often watched the aerial formations of US bombers clashing with the Luftwaffe never knowing when the camp might be hit by a stray armament.
His father also took part in escape attempts, he said.
“Most regular seamen didn't try to escape. They were the workers. You dug the tunnel, did all the work, and the pilots were the ones who were sent out first. He was a digger, but again he didn't say much about it.”
The monotony and uncertainty of camp life stood out in his father's stories, Mr Houghton said.
“One thing he used to say was that it's all well and good, being on this side, knowing that it's ended. But when you were there sitting in a prison camp, you didn't know if it was ever going to end. They had no idea. Remember, when the Russians took German prisoners, they didn't release them.”
The Third Reich collapsed in 1945. Samuel Houghton's guards fled when the Allies liberated Milag Nord, but the German army fought on from a position behind the camp.
“They had dug in, and they were firing over the camp,” Mr Houghton said.
After Germany's defeat, Allied authorities continued to hold the prisoners in the camp as they awaited repatriation. This was done to protect German civilians from vengeful former captives, but Mr Houghton recalls his father's story about slipping out one night with a friend.
“He said they walked into a German house,” he said. “The people in there didn't do anything. They walked into a bedroom and took clothes out of the closet. They both took suits. They went out, stole a horse and buggy, got drunk and came back to the camp. The story goes, they were met by this officer, and pop asked why there'd been all these white flags outside. He was told they'd just come through a mine field.”
According to his son, Samuel Houghton also did time in a brutal work camp “One of those places where they wore the striped uniforms,” he said. But the senior Houghton whiled away his captivity unaware of the mass extermination taking place in the concentration camps
“My brother and I tried to get him to go back to visit Germany, and he wouldn't do it,” Mr Houghton said. “I couldn't even buy a Volkswagen.” Even attending Remembrance Day services at the Cenotaph was something he declined.
A colourful, footloose character, Samuel Houghton was born in Grimsby in the UK, and may have bent the truth to get work aboard the well-paying Canadian vessels. Mr Houghton allowed the truth to be bent again at the war's end, when he was repatriated to Canada. He arrived in Montreal on the day of Imperial Japan's defeat.
According to his son, it was not until decades after the war that the Canadian Government discovered that his father was not an actual citizen.
“They caught up to him in the 1960s,” Mr Houghton said. “He went to Ottawa to be interviewed by the Minister himself. They told him that since he'd been a prisoner of war, they could do something for him.”
Keenly athletic, the senior Houghton enjoyed Bermuda's golf, and spent much of his 25 years' retirement travelling with his wife, whom he married in 1950.
Following a brief bout of illness, he died last week in Agape House.
Samuel Houghton, who was 91, is survived by sons Gary and John, grandchildren Tracy and Barry, and great-granddaughter Rachel. True to his character, he will be remembered with a private service.
Useful website: www.youtube.com (for the liberation of Milag Nord).
Extract from the log of the Kormoran taken from the Final Report of HMAS Sydney II Commission of Enquiry, which Samuel Houghton added at the end of his war log.
On 25 March 1941 KORMORAN encountered and took as a prize MV CANADOLITE. The war diary recorded:
N by W-E 2-4, slight to moderate sea, moderate N swell, variable cloud, isolated heavy rain, good to bad visibility.
0400 course 20°
0651 2°35'N, 23°48'W. Steamer in sight at 40° true.
0655 Alarm, course 330°. Since she is still very far, about 200 hm [hectometres], I maintain the slow speed in order not to make her suspicious. Hopefully the old trick works because with the present condition of the engine I do not believe in a long chase at full speed.
0727 The trick succeeds. Now she is about 100 hm away. We take her for a medium tanker. Hard a-starboard, engines: Full Speed ahead.
0729. De-camouflage, stop signal hoisted. I keep turning continually in order to keep my whole battery ready to fire. The tanker now shows her stern.
0736 At about 90 hm, 2 warning shots across the bow. Opponent uses radio and is jammed.
0740. Guns permission to fire. The second round lies a few metres off the target. Opponent no longer transmits, stops, takes to the boats. Therefore firing ceased.
0758 2°38'N, 23°43'W. Stopped next to opponent.
0806. Port motorboat lowered, boarding party off board. The tanker is Canadolite, 11309 tons, of the Imperial Oil Shipping Co., port of origin Montral, motor ship, built by Krupp, Germania Kiel. In ballast from Freetown to Venezuela.
I intend to send the ship to Bordeaux as a prize. Therefore I must get hold of the crew again whop are trying to flee in their lifeboats. One of the boats has already got a fair way off. My second motorboat tows it back to the tanker. That means losing a lot of time. With the exception of the captain, chief engineer, wireless operator and leading gunner, the rest of the crew of 44 were sent with a prize crew to occupied France.