Ask Alicia – Prisoner of War John D. Hills

Dear Alicia,

Do you have any information about a man named Jack Hills of St. Catharines who was a Prisoner Of War during WWII?

Thanks,

Diane


John D. Hills, a.k.a. “Jack”, was born in approximately 1918. Hills worked at Hayes Dana before he enlisted with the Second and Tenth Dragoons in St. Catharines. He was then transferred to the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (R.H.L.I.).

On August 8, 1942 Hills left Canada, headed for England. On August 19th he landed in

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Photo Attribution: St. Catharines Standard, St. C Museum S1997.8 John D. Hills visits the St. Cathairnes Museum 1997

Dieppe, France where his boat was sunk by a commando raid. During the raid John was shot in the leg with a bullet. The bullet had first gone through another man’s head before hitting his leg.  Hills was left lying on the beach for a couple of hours until Assault Landing Crafts arrived to help the wounded.  Hills assisted other wounded men onto the ship that was about 200 yards from the beach.  While getting onto the ship a plane sprayed machine gun fire at the men. Hills was hit with shrapnel in the head, back, neck and arms. Once on the ship a bullet hit the broadside of the boat.  All men had to abandon ship.  Hills was left with many other men in the cold water for between 8-9 hours when a German coastal patrol boat picked him up along with other survivors.  The men were taken as Prisoners Of War, however some of the men that were still alive, were left floating in the water.  Once on shore, Hills and the other POW soldiers were taken to a military hospital and then to Rouen and were then forced to march to various locations. On August 21 Hills arrived at the Verneuil prison camp in France.  He and many other men were then marched to a train station and on August 28th the men were piled into box cars, 40 men in each car that was meant to hold only 20.

On September 1st they arrived at the Lamsdorf prison camp in Germany known as Stalaq IIIV-B. The camp was originally built in World War I to hold French and British prisoners. In 1939 the camp was re-opened to hold prisoners from the German offensive.  While being held at the camp, Hills and the other prisoners were forced to wear handcuffs, ropes and chains.  The German’s told the prisoners that they would have to wear the cuffs until an apology was received from the British government for having tied the thumbs of German POW’s and drowning them in the Channel.  If prisoners were caught with the cuffs off, they were placed in a guardhouse and forced to stand and face a wall for 8 hours. Hills was punished in this manner on two occasions for four hours at a time. The only time the prisoners were allowed out of their chains was three days over Christmas.

Soldiers also received a POW tag with a number. Hills’ number was 25968. If a man died while in the camp, the tag was torn in half and one half was buried with the body and it is not known what the Germans did with the second half.  Hills had visited the hospital on two occasions to have shrapnel removed from his head.  One piece of the shrapnel he saved tied into a handkerchief that he had found on the ship he had boarded on his way to Europe.  While in hospital Hills stole a salmon key and hid it in a tin of powdered milk covered with German sugar beet jam.  During inspections it was never searched because of the smell.  The men used the key to unlock the handcuffs.

While being held in the camp Hills kept a journal where he recorded major events that occurred, wrote poetry, drew pictures as well as a plan of the POW camp itself. Inside the journal he wrote his name: “Cpl. Jack Hills”. Hills was the rank of Private but wrote that

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Photo Attribution: St. Catharines Standard, St.C. Museum S1997.8 – Artifacts donated by John D. Hills

he was a Cpl. because Privates could be forced to do work duty but Corporals could not.

To bide the time, John made an exact duplicate pair of handcuffs by carving wood with a piece of glass. They opened and closed. A chain was made from toothbrushes that he bent using acetone that he got by making trades. Some of the prison guards were interested in having the cuffs but Hills would not give them to anyone. When his wife Vera sent him photographs he used the cuffs as frames, putting a photo of Vera in one cuff and the children in the other.

On May 6, 1943 some of the prisoners, including Hills, began to dig a tunnel under the barbed wire fence. The tunnel was completed on July 20th.  The first escape attempt failed because a trap door on the outside did not work properly. However, on September 5th, another escape was successful.  In total, 16 men escaped the camp through that tunnel. Hills was not one of them.

On February 21, 1944 all Canadian prisoners were moved to the Stalaq 110 prisoner camp in Pom. Germany.

In 1945 all of the prisoners were forced to march ahead of the advancing Russians. On the second night of the march, John Hills and his friends Scotty Mavin and Red Mcaffery escaped.  The three men were on the run for a week but were recaptured by the Germans. They were taken to another camp and were put with other prisoners from the United States. By March 1945 the prisoners were forced to march again.  They marched for 3 days when they arrived at Camp Luft I., which was an Air Force POW camp.  A week after arriving at the new camp the Russian troops took over the camp and all of the prisoners were freed. A week later Hills was flown back to England where he spent a week in a hospital and then went to a holding unit. In June 1945 Hills left Scotland by ship for New York and then took a train to Hamilton where his wife and two sons met him after being away for 4.5 years.

After returning home from war, Hills became a constable for the Town of Merritton Police Department. After Merritton amalgamated with St. Catharines, Hills became a police officer with the Niagara Regional Police. He eventual moved up to the rank of Staff Sergeant based out of Grimsby, Ontario.  He retired in 1980 at the age of 60.

Hills was asked on many occasions to sell the handcuffs, and his other belongings from his time in the POW camp, but instead he donated his collection, which included the handkerchief holding shrapnel, the journal photographs and more, to the St. Catharines Museum in 1997.

Hills had two sons; Wayne (Marilyn) and Reg (Gail), as well as one daughter; Penney. He also had 8 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren.

John D. Hills died in his 92nd year at the St. Catharines General Hospital on February 26, 2011.

If you are interested in viewing Hills’ handcuffs and other artifacts, visit the St. Catharines Museum on Tuesday, August 30th for our Open Late “Out of the Vault” event.

5 comments

  1. What an amazing story of survival!! It certainly puts life into perspective when you read what Mr. Hills went through. Next time I am at the museum I will look for the hand cuffs. Thanks again for such an interesting read Alicia.

    Like

  2. Hi Alicia
    I’m Tammy Hills-Bruce, one of the 8 grandchildren. I want to thank you so much for doing the article! Our Pappy didn’t speak of his time in the war very much with us as it was very difficult for him. We were very blessed with a lots of love, horses to ride at the farm, a snow mobile they bought us, & an addition with pool table & fire place that was put on the back of their house for the grandchildren to enjoy! Vera & Jack were amazing grandparents!

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