Nobody knew where that ancient hickory-shafted ladies' mashie came from. It turned up one day in 1943 at Stalag Luft 3, Hitler's main prisoner-of-war camp for RAF officers in the forest of Sagan, and worked a remarkable change in the lives of hundreds of men.
Stalag Luft was one of the better camps. The Luftwaffe, which ran it, believed in a velvet glove policy toward POWs, on the principle that, if they were left alone and made reasonably content, their will to escape would be lessened. There was little of the bullying arrogance and stupidity common to other camps and, within severe limits, the prisoners could pursue their own activities. In their half-life of noise, dirt, insufficient food, discomfort and lack of privacy, what made life bearable for the prisoners of Stalag Luft was sport.
Soccer and Rugby—seven a side on a half-size pitch—softball, introduced by the Canadians and swiftly popular, and even cricket were played with an intensity and passion the like of which I have never seen since. Years of frustration were sublimated in games that could become tough and even brutal. The Germans soon banned Rugby because the sick quarters were filled with broken collarbones, torn ligaments and the rest.
One sport the camp failed to provide—at least before I got there—was golf. Then, shortly after I arrived, that little mashie turned up! I seized on it like a starved dog would seize a bone. Eager to put it to proper use, I and another man, a journalist named Sydney Smith, made ourselves a ball by wrapping yards of string around a lump of wood and covering it with cloth. It was not much of a ball, but it served, and we chipped it 50 yards back and forth for hours and hours. Others wanted to play, but Smith was firm. "Go make your own balls," he said, "and we'll let you use the club." And so they did.
August 3, 1969
Within days several new balls appeared, some even better than ours. As more people began to swing that overworked mashie, we designed a course, using doors, tree stumps and telephone poles for holes. Soon there were 12 of us, enduring the tolerance and good-humored scorn of the rest of the camp. The game was revolutionized when Danny O'Brien, a scratch golfer in Scotland, used some strands of rubber in his ball and outhit us by miles. Like the golfers of old, who mistrusted the Haskell rubber-cored ball and bemoaned the passing of the gutty, so we resented the usurping of string as the essential ingredient, but progress would not be stayed. By now balls were covered with elastoplast, the innovation of Ronnie Morgan, another scratch golfer, and tremendous pressure was put on the officer in charge of the medical stores for supplies, but this phase passed. The revolution in ballmaking was really under way, and the first one made entirely of rubber appeared.
The ingenuity of prisoners was considerable, and the collective skills of 800 men within a confined space were almost limitless. Within months ballmaking had become an art, rubber more priceless than food or tobacco, and its value soared on the camp market exchange. It came from soles of shoes, tobacco pouches and air cushions, and people wrote home for these things to be sent in quarterly clothing parcels. Brandnew rubber-soled shoes would be torn to shreds on arrival, the precious rubber cut into thin strands with a razor blade, wound round a core of metal and covered with leather, usually from the shoes.
Trial and error soon achieved the right tension in the winding and the right weight. The method of covering was similar to that of a baseball: two figures of eight. Thread and twine became commodities precious beyond reckoning. Eventually we were making balls exactly to the British specifications of 1.62 ounces and 1.62 inches diameter. These homemade affairs would fly true and could be hit to within 10 to 20 yards of a proper ball with a medium iron. From dawn to dusk every day, balls of every kind flew like tracer bullets around the camp; the miracle of it was that no one was seriously injured. Our finest ballmaker was an Australian named Samsom, and a sample of his work is now enthroned in the Royal and Ancient museum at St. Andrews.
Within a few months real balls began to arrive in answer to our fervent appeals to friends in Switzerland, Turkey, Britain and even some occupied countries. Better even than the new balls, some of our friends sent us real clubs and the precious mashie could at last be rested. I calculated that it had hit more than 300,000 shots, been tossed from one player to another thousands of times and yet its sturdy little shaft never yielded. It must have been 15 years old.
Among the new clubs was a limber-shafted driver. Its use was banned because of potential lethal effect within so small a space, but temptation was too strong for me. One frozen day when everyone was inside I teed a real golf ball at one end of the camp and let fly. The ecstasy of that impact, the first full shot in four years, was unforgettable; so was the apprehension as it soared away in a great booming slice over the kitchen building. The inevitable plunk followed and, as I soon discovered, the occupants of the room had flung themselves down as the ball crashed through the window, thinking a bored guard had opened up with a gun.
The Germans protested against the breaking of windows, which was not as amusing as it seemed for they had to be boarded up with wood. The highlight of such episodes happened when a friend of mine shanked his tee shot into the window of a German lavatory in the kitchen building. An Unteroffizier was showered with glass, but the only repercussion was a request to move the tee. The original course included all kinds of spectacular holes, with blind shots over huts, but these had to be abandoned as more and more people played. Anyone standing by a window was in the target area.
Out of bounds was a far greater hazard than it ever is on a normal course. Inside the double barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp was a low rail, leaving a no-man's-land of some 10 yards width. If you stepped in this you could be shot. The Germans grew tired of fetching balls, so they gave us white coats to wear while retrieving them. This, in effect, was a parole that one would not attempt to escape. If a ball went over the outside wire, there was nothing for it but to wait for a passerby, sometimes guided by a guard from the watchtower, to throw it back.
As ball manufacture evolved, so did course architecture. Within months, greens—or rather browns—had been fashioned, roughly eight to 10 yards in diameter, with shallow banks around them. The sand surfaces, carefully smoothed, were true and fast for putting, especially when watered, and a nine-hole par-3 course of 900 yards emerged, with the longest hole about 150 yards. Even with a seven-iron, hitting these greens was not easy, but we became pretty accurate. I always recall my first game on a proper course after the war—the greens looked enormous, impossible to miss, but that illusion soon vanished.
Before the supply of clubs became plentiful, several artists made their own. Some were incredible contraptions. One, weighing about 20 ounces, became known as "Abort Annie." The patience, ingenuity and craftsmanship necessary to construct a playable club defies imagination when it is realized that the shafts were hand-carved from ice-hockey sticks, the heads molded from melted-down water jugs and stovepipes and the whole job done without any proper tools except a knife. The molds for casting the heads were made of soap or sand. At first it seemed impossible to make the heads strong enough without their being too heavy, but an American named Lee Usher and others succeeded, until the Germans unsportingly objected to their stovepipes being sacrificed to the cause of golf.
Stalag golf was wonderful for your game. At first, when we played with only the one club, real versatility of shot-making was needed: pitch, pitch and run, cut shots, explosions, putts—all of them with the mashie. Competitions and exhibitions given by the best players always drew crowds, and few of us had any experience at being watched before, especially by highly critical people who knew you well. You learned to concentrate, just as in a tournament at home.
There was quite an atmosphere to it—the practicing before breakfast; the crowds, intent and silent, wearing only the scantiest of clothes; the players, working on every shot; and the sun so hot that you could scarcely walk on the sand barefoot. Reputations in a prison camp were jealously preserved; no one wanted to make a fool of himself on the golf course any more than a professional does in public, and our public was always with us—a few feet away.
By the end of that first golfing summer, the disease had fairly taken root. More than 300 had played the course, causing problems of congestion and control far beyond those of any public links. Wherever one looked, someone was swinging a club or a piece of wood, having a lesson from one of the comparative aces, practicing shots or talking golf. We saturated ourselves in it, and people, who a few months earlier had never touched a club, talked glibly of draw, fade, shoulder turn, backspin and so on. Beginners had a great advantage over those at home: daily practice and constant tuition; one I knew shot in the 80s when he first played a proper course.
The Germans watched with the bored tolerance of attendants at a funny farm, little knowing that one of the most ingenious and daring escapes of the war was taking place right under their noses. All through the summer a wooden vaulting horse, with enclosed sides, was carried out each day to a point some 20 yards from the wire, behind the sixth green. It carried a man who for hours on end lay almost naked in a terribly confined space, always with the possibility of being buried alive, digging the tunnel, foot by foot, which took three men to escape and freedom. The venture became world famous as The Wooden Horse. Eric Williams, the leader, and his two companions were the only successful escapers from that compound. They completed the tunnel after months of labor, while a guard in the watch-tower, not 30 yards away, looked down on the stupid British as they fooled around on the wooden horse, with the golfers passing by and the footballers and softballers on their nearby pitches.
When the tunnel was discovered after the three men had gone, the Germans threatened to close the golf course for good, because they thought it had been used as a blind for the tunnel. In fact, it had not. That would have been too obvious, as the Germans later realized. So, a few weeks later the browns were smoothed, the banks and bunkers rebuilt and the Sagan Golf Club was back in business once more. It remained active, a precious part of our lives, until the camp was captured by the Russians early in 1945.