Episodes & Studies Volume 1
LIBERATION came to many prisoners far away from the camps where they had spent most of the war. Others enjoyed the spectacle of the familiar guards surrendering their arms, perhaps to the prisoners themselves in anticipation of the early arrival of the Allied armies, and of the gates of their prisons being opened by friendly troops. The long years of boredom and anxiety were rolled back; the day of days had come, for some so much more moving than they had anticipated, for others an anti-climax, a slackening of tension, even a disappointment.
For some the few days following liberation were difficult, especially as prisoners had to assume new responsibilities. Some, armed with German rifles without ammunition, became guards to their former captors. They had still to feed themselves, and sometimes dependent foreign workers as well, in a country collapsing under the last of the strains of war, that of defeat, until full army supply services caught up with the fast-moving tanks. One group, which was not liberated until May 1945, broke out of its Austrian camp; the situation in the locality was confused, with SS formations still resisting. The prisoners fed themselves, looting German food dumps and trains: ‘We had a lot of fun, but did not commit any murders or atrocities I am glad to say,’ one wrote. Freedom in the first instance did not necessarily mean a Bacchanalian carnival; it might sooner express itself in a return to the forms of Army life. ‘Up early, wash, dress as a soldier again. Nothing but guards and duties and orders, counter-orders.’ A sapper took command of an Austrian camp and drove away in an enormous car to find the Allied forces. Another New Zealander, a non-commissioned officer, took charge of the town of Graz, dispersed the local Nazis, whom he could not entirely protect from the vengeance of the population, and was in complete control when the Allies arrived.
Late in March 1945, the senior British officer at a prisoner-of-war hospital, a New Zealand major, received a deputation from the local South German townspeople, offering to kill the few genuine Nazis in their town and surrender it. On his orders a messenger was sent to the American forces, who next day occupied the town without resistance. The New Zealander then remained as Town Major for several weeks. Some SS troops hiding in the woods used to make periodical forays in search of food, and to check these raids he instituted patrols of former prisoners armed with captured German weapons. He commandeered a factory generator to supply the town with essential electricity, erected a new 60-foot bridge to replace one blown up by the Germans, and allocated ‘all labour between 16 and 60 to farms so that the seed might be sown for next season’s harvest’.
This man, like others, had doubly earned his leave by the time he was flown out to English reception areas. The arrangements for the transfer of prisoners from Germany to Britain in Dakotas or Lancasters worked promptly and efficiently. The service was flexible enough to take men from almost any part of Germany to Britain, using French or Belgian airfields as staging points, within a few days of liberation. Some prisoners from Austria were flown out to Italy. Going by air was closer to the pattern of liberation which men had sketched in their own minds: the rapid transfer from the prison camp to friendly hands and the excellent and smoothly running organisation reassured those who had been fearful, in the years of captivity, of being forgotten; they found that their needs were being met as rapidly as was humanly possible, and their priority was second only to that of military operations.