Home In focus Erich, 91, remembers Huyton’s wartime past

Erich, 91, remembers Huyton’s wartime past

by Gemma Melling

91-year-old Erich Kirste is the last surviving resident of Huyton’s Prisoner of War Camp.

Erich’s story is testament to the life changing experiences of those who passed through the camp.

After growing up on a farm in southern Germany, Erich was called up to join the German army aged 17 in May 1943. By then, World War 2 had been raging for almost four years.

He hoped to join the Air Force but as he had no previous experience in the Air Cadets, he was instead enlisted into the Paratroopers.

A short while before turning 19, he was captured in Italy and held as a prisoner of war.

Erich Kirste

Erich Kirste

As the war continued, Erich was moved from one prisoner of war camp to another – in countries including Italy, France and Czechoslovakia, before eventually being brought to the UK.

He spent some time in camps in Myerscough, Altringham and Ashton in Makerfield. By then the war had finished, but it was some time before prisoners of war like Erich were able to return home. For Erich, ongoing trouble in his home region of East Germany made it impossible for him to return.

As he considered what to do next, Erich was approached by the Huyton Royal Engineers to ask if he would like to volunteer in the bomb disposal team and move to the prisoner of war camp in Huyton. He accepted, and was one of seven men transferred to the camp, which stood on the site which is now King George V playing fields, off Longview Lane.

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Because the war was over, the former prisoners of war who lived in the camp were free to move about, get jobs and become involved in the local community.

Erich remembers that rationing, which only started to be lifted three years after war ended, was still in place, but says he had no complaints about life in the camp.

“Obviously you couldn’t expect anything better than what people had outside the camp,” he says. “A lot depended on the staff you had in the cookhouse – some could make a decent meal from nothing, whilst others could have the best ingredients ever and still make a mess of it!”

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After spending so much time moving around, Erich’s future became more settled after meeting his future wife, Eleanor, a local girl who lived in Huyton. They met in the canteen at the prisoner of war camp, at one of the weekly Saturday Night dances. Eleanor was a friend of one of the girlfriends of another former prisoner of war, and after she confided in her friend that she wanted to see Erich again their relationship blossomed.

Erich & Eleanor

He and Eleanor lived the rest of their lives in Huyton, raising their three daughters here. Sadly Eleanor passed away in 2009, but Erich still lives in Huyton.

Now the story of Huyton’s prisoner of war camp – and separate internment camp, which was situated in Woolfall Heath, and held foreign citizens deemed to be a risk to national security – is being featured in an exhibition in Huyton library, after Knowsley Council’s Archive Resource Knowsley (ARK) carried out research into its history.

Erich is the last surviving resident of the Huyton Prisoner of War Camp, and he was happy to agree to be interviewed as part of the research into this often forgotten piece of Huyton’s history. He was one of those people who came forward with personal memories of the camp, who was interviewed for the exhibition by Year 8 History students from Lord Derby Academy.

He said: “There was a time, both here and in Germany, that people didn’t want to know about this part of our history, they didn’t want to talk about it.

“But they realised that wasn’t the right thing. It is good to do something like this [the exhibition, now on in Huyton library], so that future people will know what happened, how we got here, why we are here.”

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Erich Kirste at the Huyton Library exhibition

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VIDEO: Erich Kirste looks back on his time in Huyton’s prisoner of war camp