Object of the Month: Second World War Diary

For this month’s object we have returned to our archival collection for inspiration. Thebook cover object is a diary kept by Lt A Mathers during his time at Stalag XVIII-A, a German prisoner-of-war camp in southern Austria. Mathers, a Yorkshireman, kept the diary between 22 August 1944 and 12 January 1945.

Mathers’ diary is full of interesting, and often entertaining, anecdotes from his time as a P.O.W., such as when he and a few others trapped a cricket in a tobacco tin and hid it under another soldier’s bed. They hoped the cricket would drive the soldier mad and he would go after it with a sledgehammer!

One thing that really caught our attention was Mathers’ sketches and descriptions of the inventiveness of the P.O.W.s when it came to solving everyday problems in camp. Mathers writes the following:

The resourcefulness of the P’s.O.W. is amazing – necessity is the mother of invention, and right here in prison camp are to be found scores of these little inventions created by necessity, and I think, in spite of the mental and physical strain we have all learned at least a little about adaptability.

Here are two of the inventions Mathers goes into detail about:

The first contraption:


In the next compound are N.C.O.s who have no cooking apparatus whatsoever. They are faced with the problem of cooking food without stoves – there is not sufficient fuel to make large fires outdoors – this is how they overcome these problems. A contraption is constructed of empty milk tins which acts in a similar way to the blacksmith’s furnace and is capable of boiling a pint of water in 2 minutes or under. These contraptions are called ‘blowers’. A few pieces of cardboard provides the fuel for starting – after that any rubbish will do for it burns anything and gives off immense heat. At meal times the NCOs are to be seen outside their barracks using these contraptions – every spare square yard alongside the wind shielded side of the hut is taken up by a crouched figure operating his blower. Clouds of smoke fill the air when they are first being lit up, and the squeaking of complaining milk tins is everywhere.”

The Blower

“THE BLOWER. Highly esteemed by Ps.O.W.”

If you look closely at the image you will see the contraption is made up of the following: milk tin, with fan inside; geared wheel, usually a bobbin; belt – string, tape, anything; 2 milk tin lids knocked together; rotating handle; wooden base plate. It looks like by rotating the handle attached to the milk tin lids you would move the belt which would then spin the milk tin with a fan inside it. The fan would create a draught which would fan the fuel which in turn would heat a tin of food.

The second contraption:


The brewer can only be used where plugs are fitted, or when bared wires are available. This infernal machine is ‘verboten’ and confiscated if found. It puts great pressure on the wiring and burned fuses are frequent unless very great care is exercised in the use. Tea may be added to the water with the brewer in but not coffee – the latter causes fuse burning. Will boil 5 pints of water in as many minutes if in good condition. Will bring cold Horlicks to the boil in 1 minute. The wiring is illustrated Fig1 is the most efficient.

The Brewer

The Brewer

Mathers’ drawing of this invention shows that it is made up of two metal plates with a couple different options for how the wiring may be done.

The diary contains another sketch or two of various contraptions and lists of what the P.O.W.s used in place of everyday objects like potato mashers and rolling pins. We love reading these first-hand accounts of life during a war, it really brings home things that you just don’t always get from a text book.


About blackwatchmuseum

The Museum of The Black Watch offers an insight into one of the British Army's if not the world's most famous fighting units. Scotland's Black Watch is an elite military regiment whose history stretches back almost three centuries.
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