Corporal Leslie J (Jack) Soden

Jack was born in 1911, the son of George and Ella Soden, who lived at No.33 Desborough Avenue.

At the time George was a “coachman cab driver” of a horse-drawn carriage. He then worked for the local firm Hull, Loosely and Pearce for 38 years, before joining Dancer & Hearne’s.

Jack would probably have attended the nearby Green Street School, before joining furniture manufacturer Parker Knowl.

In about 1928 and still in his teens, he joined the Territorials of the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry (OBLI) and became a bugler.

Late in the year 1931 he married local girl Annie Rolfe in High Wycombe.

The couple went on to have three children, John born in 1932, Daphne in 1935, and Joan in 1937.

At the start of WWII Jack enlisted in the 1st Buckinghamshire Battalion of the OBLI, who were sent out to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France in January 1940.

He wrote to his wife Annie towards the end of May 1940 to say that he was “in the Battle of Dunkirk”.

Whilst retreating to Dunkirk the 1st Bucks Battalion took part in the battle for the town of Hazebrouck, which was an important railway centre in Flanders.

The battle commenced on 27 May, when they came under heavy attack from all directions by the German 8th Panzer Division.

For a week they managed to delay the German advance, before they were eventually ordered to fight their way back to Dunkirk to be evacuated.

Only 10 officers and approximately 200 men of the battalion reached the United Kingdom.

Jack Soden was not among these men. Throughout June Annie had no news about his whereabouts, or whether he was dead or alive.

She must have been fearing the worst.

Her anxiety would have been compounded when she was informed by the authorities early in July that he was “missing”.

It was another three months before she heard In mid-October 1940 the joyous news that Jack was still alive, but was a prisoner-of-war in German hands.

Although not ideal news, this must have provided for Annie, her three children and wider family, some hope for the future.

Another letter was received from Jack towards the end of July 1941, saying that he was well and had been moved to another POW camp.

Here he had met an old school friend and fellow member of the OBLI, Platoon Sergeant Major W F Humphrey.

In May 1945, nearly five years after his capture, Corporal Jack Soden arrived back to his home in High Wycombe.

At that time his family were living at 224 Desborough Road. With him he had his “War-time Log” which recorded his experiences as a prisoner of the Germans.

A representative of the Bucks Free Press was privileged to be invited to see the log-book and publish some extracts in an article with the headline “How Captives Maintained Good Heart in Lonely Years”.

He wrote “In it, graphically and clearly, are reflected the wants, thoughts, ideals, prayers, humour, and activities of ordinary men, who in the prime of life have had the necessities of life denied them for years, and who express in vivid terms that which they hope to attain on their release.”

Some of these thoughts were expressed in poetry, which the BFP representative considered to be well-written.

The poems were “sometimes sombre, sometimes gay”.

An example is entitled “The Unknown”:

We admire our heroes, one and all,

Whether they live, whether they fall,

Of all their great deeds, of all do we hear,

Known as men without any fear,

There lies a man who cannot speak,

Riddled with bullets from toe to cheek,

Who’d died in Action. We knew he’d go -,

Another here you’ll never know,

Lying in a grave without any name,

Fought and died, willing and game,

So when you pass a soldier’s grave,

Raise your hat to the UNKNOWN NAME.”

The log-book also included cartoons, “realistically expressing the humour of the hard life in the camp. One of the most striking is that of ‘gefangeners’, as the Nazi’s called them [ie the POWs], supporting a skeleton with the caption ‘Hold him up until after Roll Call and we’ll get his bread ration !’”.

An explanatory footnote to this in Jack’s log-book read “This was drawn when rations in Stalag 8c were reduced to nine men to a 1,800 grammes loaf (about three and a half pounds).

“The following day they [the rations] were reduced to 12 men to a loaf”.

Another section in the log-book described “The ingenuity of the men in devising entertainment to relieve the monotony and weariness of camp life is revealed in a series of pictures of the many plays that in their spare time the men produced and acted”.

At Fort Rauch, near Pozen in Poland, where Corporal Soden was a prisoner for over three years, amongst other productions, there were performances at Christmas of the pantomimes Cinderella and Aladdin.

Another production was that of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance.

Jack also records in his log-book much more disturbing events, for example “On March 25, 1944 at Stalag Luft 3 [which was at Sagan, Germany] the undermentioned Officers were murdered by German SS troops.

Their bodies were cremated by the Germans, and the ashes returned to Luft 3 for burial. Eighty two Officers took part in the escape. Three got away and fifty were killed.”

A list that follows this account contains the names of the fifty men believed to have been killed.

[Note: This infamous incident was depicted in the 1963 film “The Great Escape” and was one of two major escapes from this POW camp, the other being depicted in the 1950 film “The Wooden Horse”. Fifty of the 76 escapees were murdered by the Nazis, 23 were spared, and 3 got away.]

In 1945 with the Russian Army approaching, the POWs at Fort Rauch camp were moved out and sent on a so-called Death March into Germany.

Jack Soden provides a detailed account of this in his log-book, recording the daily mileage and rations.

The Death March lasted 35 days. Jack records that approximately 1,900 POWs began the March, only about 1,250 reached Bad Orb, the camp in Hessen, Germany where they were liberated by the advancing Americans.

Corporal Jack Soden himself demonstrated great courage by keeping this log of his experiences as a POW of the Nazis.

He must have kept this hidden from the camp guards for nearly 5 years, knowing that should it be discovered the punishment would have been severe. Quite possibly he would have been shot if it had been found.

The log-book was inherited by his son and is still in existence.