Phill Johnson visits Fort XV

This story was written by Phill Johnson

His father was Ralph Johnson who was a POW for five years

My father Ralph Johnson was a member of the 2/5 Australian General Hospital Unit.

He was captured on his 21st birthday in Greece on the 27 April 1941.

In December 1941 my father along with many others, were loaded into cattle trucks for the nine day journey to Torun, where he spent the next three and a half years in various POW camps, with the majority of the time in Fort XV, Torun.

Dad did not speak about his experiences for 30 years after his return, and it was in the later years of his life that he shared his experiences in a book he wrote for his family.

We are extremely grateful that he did this, as without his recollections we would have little knowledge of his experiences.

So it was with mixed feelings that my wife Rhonda and I, decided that we would visit the town of Torun in Poland, the site of where he spent most of his time as a German POW.

The city of Torun is a beautiful Polish medieval city and well worth a visit for the city sights alone, but the beauty of the town belies the events that occurred in the surrounding countryside during WW11. We had been very fortunate to discover the services of Hania and Pawel Bukowski from the War Time Guides before our visit. So much of what we were able to see, do and experience

was due to their expertise and experience in guiding people who are effectively on a pilgrimage

tracing the wartime footsteps of a parent.

It is hard to put into words what it was like visiting the camps, and in several cases actually standing on the same spot of ground where my father had stood 70 years ago.

Pawel wisely took us to the restored Fort 1V first, and gave us a rich lesson on the history and layout of the Prussian Forts that surround the city of Torun.

Even though my father had not spent any time in Fort 1V, it was quite an emotional experience crossing the moat and entering the gate of the Fort.

The effort that Pawel put into explaining the functioning of this Fort was invaluable in appreciating Fort XV where my father had spent most of his time.

Walking through the main door of Fort XV was even more emotional than entering Fort 1V.

It was when I allowed my thoughts to reflect back to my father entering by the same gate under German guard after what must have been an horrendous train journey in winter from Greece, that the lump grew in my throat and I shed a few tears.

How do you place value on such an experience? It is a moment that I will never forget.

Pawel guided us around the now derelict Fort, through rooms that had been the sleeping quarters,

along dark corridors and past hand pumps where my father had described drawing water.

All the time referring back to what we had seen in the restored Fort 1V to help us make sense of what we were looking at in Fort XV.

Standing at the well where my father had drawn water, and stepping inside the sleeping quarters brought richness to the descriptions Dad had written in his book.

I had often wondered why my father could never share his war time experience and often didn’t share his feelings with others.

But standing in this place there seemed to be some resolution or understanding

Those experiences alone would have been incredible, but next we headed to Fort X1, where my father had served one weeks solitary confinement for supposedly ‘smoking on parade’.

This was another ‘I wish time could stand still’ moment and again something that will remain etched in my memory.

I was standing exactly where my father had stood all those years before.

We combed the walls of the confinement cell, among the many etchings, to find if my father had scribbled or etched anything on the wall, but were not able to find anything.

However actually seeing these ‘scribbles’ was a reminder of the many people who suffered imprisonment and endured hardship fighting for freedom we still enjoy.

Watching a beam of sunlight streaming through the slit window of the cell seemed to convey a sense of healing of the soul, and a great way to finish the day.

Pawel had come equipped with some old photographs and one where I had identified my father standing outside a gate to the parade ground as part of the Australian Cricket team.

It seemed appropriate to take time out and to stand exactly where my father had stood for a photo.

I would have been happy if time could have stood still for a time.

It was an amazing moment.

Hania gave us a great overview of Stalag XXA, including the Forts we had visited and how the Polish POWs had been treated so differently to the British and Australian POWs.

We then visited a WW2 Museum that had been set up in a local school, and where a small section had been set aside on the Australian POWs.

The Curator here is Piotr Olecki, also a Tourist Guide

How absolutely amazing it was to see my father in two of the photos on the wall.

I feel very privileged to have visited these places and to have made such a personal connection with the experiences of my father as a POW.

I am also very grateful to have discovered ‘Wartime Guides’ before I visited the town.

There is no way we would have experienced the richness of the visit without the involvement of Hania and Pawel.

Family connections aside, the Forts of Torun are of world significance, I would even say World Heritage. They are a resource that needs protection.

My hope would be that not just the buildings, but the wall paintings and etchings would be preserved so that they are not lost to future generations.

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