Throughout my museum career the subject of prisoners of war is one that has interested me, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet many men who had been taken prisoner during the Second World War. Harry Ruthven’s story inspired me because he had kept the spoon all these years, as a memento of a life-changing experience. They are relatively rare relics from the War, and we are lucky to have one in our Museum. Artefacts from the camps are interesting in and of themselves, in that the camps and contents are left over from when they were used as training centres for the Luftwaffe (the German air force) – giving the spoon a whole other dimension.
This spoon was issued to Harry Ruthven while he was a prisoner of war in Stalag VIIIB during the Second World War. It is made of aluminium and bears a German eagle holding a swastika. This symbol was chosen by Hermann Göring with the eagle’s wings spread as if in flight. He considered this a more suitable symbol for an air force – in this case the Luftwaffe. An inscription on the back – Fl.U.V. – denotes Flieger Unterkunft Verwaltung, or Flight Barracks Administration. On the reverse Harry scratched his initials, H D R. The spoon is on loan to the Museum from Mr Ruthven’s family.
Harry Ruthven was born in January 1920 and had started working at McNab’s, a whole sale baker in Perth, when in the summer of 1939 he was called up into the Territorial Army. He joined 527 Royal Army Service Corps.
On 1st September 1939 Harry was called up. “I’ve a business to run,” he said. “Well, you’re going to Barry!” And off to Barry Buddon he went. He began “breaking” supplies for units all over the north east of Scotland. He got New Year’s leave and then was told that he was going to France with the British Expeditionary Force, as part of the 51st Highland Division.
Harry arrived in France on 12th January 1940 – he was just twenty years old. At Fauville, 527 Company broke rations and sent them out to the units in their own vehicles. Then the Division moved into France and took up a position on the Maginot Line, but everyone had their suspicions about the defences. Harry was promoted to Corporal.
When the Germans broke through they headed for the French coast cutting off most of the BEF and the French Army from the supplies in the south. The 51st Highland Division was also cut off from the BEF and retreated. It found itself isolated at St Valery-en-Caux. Just outside the town Harry’s unit of 40 men was ambushed by Germans. Half the men were killed and he lost two staff sergeants. He took the wounded back to St Valery in an ambulance. He arrived there on 8th June and next day succeeded in breaking into a French store, but had to stop because of heavy shelling.
On the night of 11th June, he went from the store to the beach at Villarosa, arriving between 7pm and 8pm. The supply system had collapsed and he knew that the position was hopeless. The soldiers had rifles and Bren guns, but what could they do against tanks and Stuka bombers?
General Fortune surrendered at 11pm that night and the men started making their way from the beach up the cliffs. At the top, the German’s had pens with electric fences for the prisoners and they were kept there for a few days. Then they started walking. They got some bread at Rouen. They then walked for 20 days to get to Belgium. In France he took off one of epaulettes and managed to give them to a French girl with his mother’s address and she sent the epaulette back to Perth.
They were put in barges and were ferried down the River Rhine. Eventually they were loaded, 50 at a time, into cattle trucks and sent to Lamsdorf in eastern Germany.
In the camp everyone said that the war wouldn’t last long – but Harry was there for five years. All the soldiers were forced to work. Harry worked at the Silesian Glass Factory where at least he could shower and keep clean. But it was difficult to escape. He was on the Russian border.
In 1945 as the Russians advanced, Harry walked into Czechoslovakia. He reached Prague and was taken by lorry to Belgium, crossed the Channel and then took the train to Scotland. He arrived home on 7th August 1945. He weighed less than 7 stones.
Harry was retrained at Woking in preparation for being sent east. Then the war in Japan finished and he was demobbed in Perth early in 1946. He returned to McNab’s and when he retired he had a staff of 35 people.
On 11th November 2009 Harry Ruthven insisted on attending the Remembrance Day parade in Perth. A few days later he died aged 90. Below is a picture of Harry (left) in Stalag VIIIB.
Emma Halford-Forbes, Museum Manager, The Black Watch Castle and Museum