SKILLED CRAFTSMAN: Ena Gowland with the handbag that POW Willi Maass made for her using material from his uniform
SKILLED CRAFTSMAN: Ena Gowland with the handbag that POW Willi Maass made for her using material from his uniform

HISTORY buffs in Evenwood have used their sleuthing skills to track down the family of a German prisoner-of-war and returned to them a handbag he had made from his uniform.

The unusual case came about through Evenwood and District History Society’s Facebook page during lockdown when members were discussing VE Day and VJ Day stories from the area.
It was there that 88-year-old Ena Gowland told the story of a German POW Willi Maass, who had been assigned to work on her family’s farm in Butterknowle.
She said: “Willi was our third POW. The first two – one was an Italian – did not suit. Willi was over six feet in height and same build as dad, about the same age, dad being 39. He was dependable, humorous and co-operative.
“The first day he arrived, a Monday, when mam and dad had to go to Darlington on business, I was to invite him in to the farm house kitchen and make him tea and offer him a seat at the table. He opened a box of sandwiches, the likes I’d never seen before – two slices of dark grey bread, half an inch thick. I felt very sorry for him.”
Ms Gowland was 14 at the time and the family formed a close bond with the POW, so much so that Mr Maass created a number of presents for them that Christmas.
She said: “Willi came in with brown paper parcels, seven in all, wrapped in string and all named. For me a handbag, made from uniforms with his name and number printed inside.
“For Jean, a platform you held in your hand and jiggled – it had chicks on strings that picked at corn. For Eric, a grey horse that looked like our Prince, yoked in a coop cart. For James a wooden bull nosed German car. For Marjorie, mam and dad a pair of slippers each.”
She hoped to return the bag to Mr Maass’ family as a memento and turned to the history society for help.
Through research they learned that he was born on April 20, 1913 in Quedlinburg, Sachsen, Germany. He served with the Luftwaffe, 3rd Reserve Flak-Abt, and held the rank of Obergefreiter – the German equivalent of a senior lance-corporal.
They discovered he had been captured by the Americans at Cherbourg, in Normandy, 18 days after D- Day in 1944.
A spokesperson for the history group said: “POW Willi Maass arrived in the UK on April 30, 1946, and his first place of detention was POW Camp No. 17 at Sheffield [possibly POW number D709597].
“He was transferred to POW Camp No. 93 Harperley, Fir Tree, County Durham, and allowed to work on local farms. During the autumn and winter on 1946, Willi Maass worked at Low Westgarth Farm, Copley Bent, near Butterknowle, for Edward ‘Ted’ Stephenson on his 52 acre, mainly dairy farm.”
Historian Kevin Richardson, from the society said: “I wrote to the Red Cross – they kindly provided some details. How could we find him or his family in Germany? Ena, by chance, spoke to her cousin, Frank Sanderson, who had a friend in Germany called Hermann. Hermann and his daughter, Carolin, took up the challenge and remarkably, found Wolfgang Maass, Willi’s son.
“Ena was delighted that we’d traced the family and so the bag is en route to Germany as we speak.
“The Maass family live in what was East Germany and, sadly, Willi and his wife have departed.”

German reporter Julius Lukas in Germany speaks to Willi Maass' family after the handbag was returned to them.