Prisoners of War
I: Movements of Prisoners and Liberation in Germany
I: Movements of Prisoners and Liberation in Germany
AT the end of 1944 von Rundstedt began the unexpected counter-offensive which developed into the Battle of the Bulge; by late January 1945 it had petered out and the Western European battlefront had again become quiet. To prisoners in Germany this calm seemed merely a quiet interlude before the Allies struck again, and they could now feel with some confidence that the next Allied advances from West and East would end only with the occupation of all remaining German territory. The advance from the east began early in the new year. Just before the middle of January Warsaw fell and the Russians launched what was to be their final offensive from the Vistula. It drove with such momentum across East Prussia and Poland that the prisoner-of-war camps at Marienburg and Thorn were soon overrun and the prisoners who still remained in them came into Russian hands. These were for the most part the sick, since nearly all the others had been hastily evacuated to the west.
Military authorities in Germany had realised early in 1944 that prisoner-of-war camps situated in occupied territory to the east and west would be safer inside the German borders. In June of that year the Air Force prisoners in Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug, in Lithuania, had been evacuated partly to Gross Tychow in Pomerania and partly to Thorn in Poland; and after six weeks the latter had been moved again to Fallingbostel in Hanover. Although conditions during transport were not always good, these were comparatively orderly moves in good weather by steamer and by train. But the speed of the Russian advance from the Vistula in January 1945 precipitated a decision by Germany on the advisability of further evacuations. The war had reached a stage when her transport was in a state of critical disruption and when her own defeat seemed not only probable but imminent. Nevertheless, the German High Command decided, on the pretext that Article 7 of the Geneva Convention required prisoners of war to be moved out of danger away from a fighting zone, that prisoner-of-war camps in Poland page 450 and eastern Germany would be evacuated westwards if Russian forces appeared likely to reach them. Moves would be on foot if necessary; and for a great many camps this was going to be the only means of travel. The adding of hundreds of thousands of prisoners to the already large stream of evacuating civilians and troops was to place an additional burden on the already disorganised rationing systems of the areas through which they passed, and was to cause them tremendous additional hardship and numerous otherwise avoidable casualties.
The evacuation began with the camps in central Poland and those on adjacent German borders, which were transferred westwards into Brandenburg and onward in the direction of Brunswick. By 1 February, prisoners from Stalags XXB at Marienburg, XXA at Thorn, and the detention barracks at Graudenz were in northern Brandenburg. Almost at the same time, the many scattered working camps on the borders of Poland and Upper Silesia were threatened. A few of those near their parent stalags were brought in before the main exodus from these took place; others were merged with larger Arbeitskommandos or grouped together at the Kontrol centres for the sub-areas. It was originally intended that all these columns should be moved west to Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf or VIIIA at Görlitz, but the speed of the Russian advance and the severe overcrowding of the stalags forced many columns just to keep moving west and south into the ‘Protectorate’ of Czechoslovakia on what seemed an interminable and aimless journey. For a good number the move was to continue well into the spring and to end only with their liberation by the Allied armies. Among this mass of prisoners of war from Silesia there were between two and three thousand New Zealanders.
Thus the men at E535, the coal mine Arbeitskommando at Milowitz in Poland, where the prisoners were nearly all New Zealanders, set off on 19 January, and after traversing Upper Silesia, Sudetenland and the ‘Protectorate’, were to continue until they met the United States Army spearhead near Landshut, in Bavaria. They had only a few hours' warning of their move. Most of the men packed two blankets, warm clothing, and as much Red Cross and other food and personal possessions as they could carry. But many of the packs proved too heavy and cumbrous for long marches through snow, and much gear had to be jettisoned later by the wayside. The more enterprising managed to acquire or improvise sledges to carry their packs. For those who could not walk the Germans arranged transport, and men too sick to be moved were allowed to remain in the camp infirmary. The rest set off in the snow for a neighbouring Arbeitskommando, at a coal mine three or four miles away, and were glad when they reached it to rest their page 451 aching shoulders on the floor of a vacant room. There they joined up with another party, and the next day they became one of the many columns of prisoners moving west into Silesia along the secondary roads filled with civilian refugees and German military horse-drawn transport, to the sound of Russian gunfire not many kilometres behind them.
From then on they marched approximately twelve miles a day, sometimes in thick snow, often further in the early stages of the journey when the advanced Russian troops were almost on their heels and they could hear not only artillery but sometimes machine-gun fire as well. A 22-mile march on their second day in a temperature well below freezing caused some to drop out temporarily with bad feet or exhaustion. At the side of the road in the snow lay the wasted bodies of concentration-camp inmates who had fallen out and been shot to make sure they did not revive and escape. British prisoners of war were of course in far better health than these unfortunate people, and most of them managed eventually to struggle on to the goal set for the day's march.
Almost every night they were tightly packed into barns, which though they afforded some shelter were dark and cold. Men slept close together in pairs or in larger groups, to make more efficient use of the available blankets and body warmth; even so it sometimes took an hour or two for feet to warm sufficiently for sleep. To stop their wet boots freezing hard overnight they took them into bed with them. Even if there had been facilities for washing, few would have risked taking off their warm clothing. Men began to get frostbitten toes, and it was fortunate that a British medical officer marched with the column. On his evening rounds, as well as attending to the sick, he was able to keep up morale with news received on a radio carried in his pack. Those who reported sick at night were grouped together next morning to form a slow column, since only the most serious cases were allowed to remain in a local hospital.
Many of the guards, especially the older men, were in worse condition than the prisoners, and a number were left behind at various stages of the journey, unable to carry on. They were armed with rifles and hand grenades, and with some columns there were police dogs from the camps. Though some guards remained the bullies they had been in camp, others were disgruntled with the whole turn of events and were unusually friendly and helpful to the prisoners. Civilians, more particularly the Poles, were often willing to help with hot water and sometimes even with clothing and food. At almost every halt a few prisoners were able to escape from the column and hide up to await the arrival of Russian forces; many owed their success to fatigue or apathy on the part of the guards, as page 452 well as complicity on the part of civilians. But most prisoners were uncertain about the advisability of falling into Russian hands, and preferred in any case not to risk being caught by those SS troops whose task it was to clean up the area behind the battlefront.
In the bitter cold of late January the Milowitz column passed into eastern Sudetenland, where the prisoners found they could trade with the more approachable civilians. Chocolate, soap, clothing, and even watches and rings changed hands for bread, potatoes and other food, to solve the increasingly serious shortage of rations. Men stole and ate everything they could, even raw swedes and sugar-beet. There seemed to be no definite ultimate objective for the column, and the guards, lacking other instructions, merely moved on twelve miles a day and found quarters in what empty barns were available.
At the beginning of February the column was climbing up into the mountains on the Czechoslovakian border amid blinding wind and snow. One of the marchers wrote a description of this period:
We crossed a mountain range with a wind of gale force lifting particles of ice into our faces. Soft snow piled up on the road in any place sheltered from the wind, made marching difficult. By afternoon the snow had become frozen and slippery. Many men had bad falls. One fall was worse than marching several miles. Usually a man who slipped on the snow and fell unexpectedly on the hard ground took some time to recover, having to be assisted to his feet.
He goes on to mention that after their arrival at the town where they were to spend the night they were kept standing for two hours, shivering in the snow, and when they were finally moved into billets they were so exhausted that they would gladly have lain down with packs and boots still on. More and more men were going down with sickness and falling out of the line of march, and more and more sledges were being reluctantly dumped. The thaw in the second week of February put an end to sledges and at the same time brought merciful relief from the intense cold, though boots were becoming so worn out that men's feet remained continually wet.
It soon became the practice to have one day's spell from marching in every three. This gave respite to weary bodies and made washing, shaving, and mending possible. As February wore on, with less and less to eat and civilians forbidden to give them any food, and still no definite destination, more and more men succeeded in escaping. The Germans chose the last day of February to issue a propaganda pamphlet urging British prisoners to join Germany in the fight against Russia:
The Fate of Your Country is at stake ! ! … This means the fate of your wives, of your children, your home…. Whether you are willing to fight in the front line or in the service corps, we make you this solemn promise: whoever as a soldier of his own nation is willing to join the common front for the common cause, will be freed immediately after the victory of the present offensive and can return to his own country via Switzerland. All that we have to ask from you is the word of the gentleman not to fight directly or indirectly for the cause of Bolshevik-Communism as long as this war continues…. You will receive the privileges of our own men for we expect you to share their duty….
Coming after the events of the previous six weeks, nothing could have been less calculated to achieve the object for which it appealed.
Other groups of Arbeitskommandos had similar experiences, and accounts of their marches draw attention to the same things: the forced pace at the beginning (often twenty miles a day) to get out of earshot of the Russian gunfire; the struggle through the snow feet deep along back roads and country lanes; the improvised billets in old leaking barns without heat or light; the blistered and frostbitten feet, the chills and stomach disorders, and eventually weakness from lack of sufficient food. One party had a dreadful night march through a blizzard in late January. Exhausted men had to be sustained by their comrades and some even drawn on sledges. Intermittent rifle and revolver fire in the darkness around them was a reminder that less fortunate Russian prisoners were being mercilessly killed because they could not continue the march. Our men were glad at the end of it to get into a barn, where the warmth of the farm animals helped to melt the ice on their garments and to soothe their aching bodies.
For most columns the rations received from the Germans were meagre and irregular issues of bread, tinned meat and potatoes, and there was a constant struggle to get enough food to keep going. Fortunately most of them benefited by gifts of bread and often of page 454 hot food and firewood in the smaller Czech towns and villages. Later groups coming on the heels of many thousands of other prisoners did not fare as well as the first parties to pass through the Czechoslovakian countryside, and eventually the Germans forbade the giving of food to prisoners of war since the Czechs refused it to German civilian refugees. But by then the weather was better and the pace easier, often slowed down by congestion on the road ahead. Even if little or no food was forthcoming, the columns received an enthusiastic welcome from the friendly Czechs, a pleasant change from the sullen manner of the Sudeten Germans whose territory they had not long since come through. A New Zealander's diary reads:
Passing the town [Ostretin] crowded with civilians, we were greeted with cheers, salutes and cries of ‘‘Englander’'. It made us feel like men again, and every man marched with his head up and shoulders back, though not a few had tears in their eyes; it was the first visible sign of friendliness (apart from the food) we had received on the march.
The first large camps in Upper Silesia to be affected by the evacuation were Stalags 344 at Lamsdorf and VIIIB at Teschen. According to the original German plan Lamsdorf was to send as many as possible to Stalag VIIIA at Görlitz, in order to make way for prisoners from Teschen and the Upper Silesian Arbeitskommandos. In fact, Teschen was too far south for its occupants to outpace the Russian advance in a move north to Lamsdorf, and was forced, as were most of its detachments, to turn west into Czechoslovakia. All prisoners except the sick left Teschen in a snowstorm on 27 January. Extremely severe weather conditions in the first stages of their march cost them many cases of frostbite, one hospital at Oberlangendorf having to treat 25 of them by amputation. Eventually most of the men reached Königgraz, whence they were taken on by train to Weiden. There the camp was overcrowded on their arrival, and though a few were allowed to remain, the majority were moved on to Stalag XIIID at Nuremberg which they reached on 10 March.
The general route of the column from Stalag VIIIB and its work detachments, as well as many of those from Stalag 344, was west through the southern tip of Upper Silesia, across the mountain ranges of eastern Sudetenland to Königgraz. Thence they moved in a general westerly direction towards Karlsbad. Plans had originally been made by the German High Command for these columns to form two groups, one to remain on the north-western frontiers of Czechoslovakia and the other to move into areas adjacent to Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Munich. Some of the columns were halted and put to work in Czechoslovakian territory, but the majority page 455 eventually found their way into Bavaria before being liberated by the advanced United States forces.
Prisoners in Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf received orders to move at two hours' notice on 22 January, and in the early afternoon columns of approximately a thousand men began to move out through the camp gates. Red Cross food parcels and German rations were issued to each prisoner before leaving. By evening the Commonwealth Air Force prisoners and Army NCOs, as well as all those of other nationalities, had gone, and there remained only the lightly sick and convalescent in a special compound. Fine, frosty weather with hard snow underfoot made for good marching conditions on the first day. In the distance could be heard the rumble of gunfire. A Red Cross inspector who saw the departure said that the prisoners ‘were in high spirits, full of expectation to be overtaken by the Russians’. There is also evidence that some at least were glad to be on the move away from the Russian forces.
Only some six hundred of the column of one thousand RAF prisoners from Lamsdorf reached Stalag VIIIA at Görlitz a fortnight later. The remainder had been left behind on the way, sick, exhausted, or suffering from frostbite, though many of the last reached Görlitz on foot or by transport a few days after the main body. Though merely skirting the northern and eastern edges of the ranges in eastern Sudetenland, they had to march 150-odd miles in low temperatures and very severe weather generally. A week after their arrival they had to move on from Görlitz, and they spent February travelling west on a route that took them through Saxony into Thuringia. By the beginning of March they were at Meiningen, many of them suffering from stomach disorders, the result of poor and insufficient rations and the fatigue of long marches under difficult conditions.
Their story is largely the story of the other columns which made up the remainder of the 8000 men who left Lamsdorf at the same time, except that many of the Army prisoners who had been out at Arbeitskommandos doing heavy physical work were in better condition to stand the march. But even they were not proof against the bitter January weather in eastern Germany, nor against the incapacity of the German authorities, in the confusion of a rapid retreat, to provide food for large moving columns of prisoners.
The German rations, never adequate under normal conditions, reduced themselves to about four ounces of bread, a few potatoes, and a helping of soup each day. In the better-organised columns the Germans drew rations approximately each week from army dumps in towns they passed through, and brought them along on horse-drawn transport with the column. Some of these columns page 456 even had margarine, honey and sugar, but most seem to have been much more haphazard in their rationing. Sometimes only one of the staple items would be issued, and some columns went for days without any issue of rations at all. In spite of an effort by the International Red Cross Committee to bring food by lorry to them at various points on their line of march, their movements were so uncertain that only a small percentage of them were served. When their original Red Cross supplies petered out, the prisoners had to live on the German rations, together with what they could buy or take. They could not continue for long marching twelve miles a day on this fare without feeling the effects. By late February and early March they were showing the same signs of malnutrition as had marked for many of them the early stages of their captivity.
Back in Lamsdorf no further attempt had been made to move the two thousand or so who remained after the exodus on 22 January. Inside the wire the prisoners took over the ration and clothing stores, and camp life continued as before except that there was no German interference. Over the next three weeks there was increasing gunfire and air activity as the Russians advanced. By mid-February most men believed that they would be liberated by the Russian forces, as it seemed unlikely that the Germans would be able to spare rolling stock for their transport west. But on 21 February they were entrained, forty to fifty packed into each cattle-truck, and they began a leisurely ten-day journey across central Czechoslovakia and northern Bavaria. They were able to take plenty of Red Cross food with them, so that their most serious menace came not from malnutrition but from Allied air attacks. They reached Hammelburg unscathed, however, and were destined to stay some three weeks there in a crowded Stalag XIIIC before moving south on foot. Some of the hospital patients, including limb cases still in plaster, went by train (forty to a cattle-truck) to Stalag XVIIB at Krems, in Austria, a journey which took a week and was carried out under extremely bad conditions for the men concerned.
The second week of February brought such an influx of prisoners into Stalag VIIIA at Görlitz that they were sleeping on floors, tables, and wherever else there was available space. Cases of frostbite, some of them serious enough to necessitate amputation, and others with pneumonia and allied complaints filled the camp infirmary. Many of these would have been much less serious had the men been allowed to remain at the place on the route where they had first reported sick, instead of having to complete the march in a slower column.
In spite of protests to the Germans by the British man-of-confidence against a move in winter, in view of the large numbers in camp who had already undergone a gruelling march from the page 457 east, in spite of the scarcity of food and of the lack of transport for sick and disabled, parties of a thousand men began to leave Görlitz on 15 February. They were to continue marching twelve miles or more a day for four weeks, neither the prisoners nor the guards knowing where they were ultimately bound for. Issues of rations were made in the haphazard fashion that other columns had already experienced, and men had similarly to trade clothing and soup in the villages for bread and potatoes. A hot soup or stew would sometimes be issued at night to the men billeted in village barns. But it has been estimated that the average daily rations were not more than four ounces of bread and two ounces of meat. There was, moreover, no proper provision for drinking water on the road, and men had often to risk breaking the column to fill their water bottles in ditches and running streams.
Cold and wet weather in the first stage of the march turned many lightly sick into potentially serious cases. One column had a hundred of them at the end of a week; they were formed into a special party which was allowed to make its way as best it could behind the main body. A great many of the marchers developed intestinal troubles, sometimes caused or aggravated by eating raw sugar-beets. Fortunately, with one or two exceptions, every night was spent under cover, mostly in barns, but sometimes in factories or barracks. Usually, except for straw in barracks, there was no provision for bedding; nor was there any for drying wet clothes, which were ‘usually dried on the body during the night, or semidried according to the weather conditions of the previous day.’1 Two or three of the columns were forced to spend a night in an old stone quarry in rain, which later developed into sleet and snow, because the German burgomaster had complained to the guards that the prisoners had stolen potatoes.
1 Account by a New Zealand warrant officer who took part in the march from Görlitz.
It was to Duderstadt also that the marching columns from Stalag VIIIC at Sagan eventually made their way. They had left Sagan on 12 February and had marched to Spremberg, anticipating that there would be rail transport to take them on. As it turned out they had to complete the 300 miles to Duderstadt on foot. They had to spend nights in the open exposed to rain or snow, and their days of rest were rare and irregular. Many became lice-infested through inability to wash properly. British medical officers who accompanied the columns did what they could to secure supplies and treat the sick. But many of the latter were forced out on the road unfit to walk far; and more serious cases (of pneumonia, for example) which should have been left at hospitals en route were brought along in open horse-drawn carts.
The large mass of Air Force prisoners in Stalag Luft III at Sagan was moved in the last days of January, and marched through the frosts, the snows, and the biting winds which beset the paths of the hundreds of columns at that period slowly making their roughly parallel ways west. Orders were given by senior officer prisoners not to attempt to escape, as it seemed that isolated fugitives who could not prove their identity might be an embarrassment to the advancing Allied forces. It was moreover impossible, owing to the weather, to travel across country and spend nights in the open; and German troops were streaming back through the villages and towns, many of them in an ugly mood. The Air Force prisoners had only three days on the road, for once they reached Spremberg they were entrained. Some went to Tarmstedt, near Bremen, and marched from there to Marlag-Milag Nord at Westertimke; another party went to Stalag IIIA at Luckenwalde, 40 miles southwest of Berlin, a camp which already contained some 16,000 prisoners of various nationalities; another party went to Stalag XIIIC at Hammelburg; and the remainder went to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg, in Bavaria.page 459
Air Force prisoners from Stalag Luft VII at Bankau, in Silesia, were also moved to Stalag IIIA at Luckenwalde, but they set out at the same time as other camps in their neighbourhood on 19 January. They marched some 200 miles to Goldberg under the same conditions as the columns from Army prisoner-of-war camps, and then went on by train to Luckenwalde. The eight hundred or so British prisoners in Stalag Luft IV at Kiefheide, in Pomerania, left on 6 February and were marched west across the Stettin estuary to near Neu Brandenburg, where they were rested in barns for two weeks. But the number of unfit was so high that the German authorities decided to send them on by rail, and they reached Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel in early March. A party of five (typical of many), who escaped and tried to make their way back to the Russian lines, had to give themselves up through sickness after six days and were transported to Stalag Luft I at Barth.
So began and developed in early 1945 the vast trek of prisoners in Germany from east to west. At first the objectives were fairly definite: men from outlying work detachments were moved towards stalags, staging at previously emptied work-camps on the way; men from stalags were moved west to other stalags. Ultimately, as Germany became more and more disorganised, for those travelling on foot the goals became merely areas in central Germany: Hanover Brunswick, Thuringia, Bavaria. By late February there were approximately 100,000 Allied prisoners moving along a northern route towards the general area of Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck; another 60,000-odd were moving westward through a central region bounded by Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin; in the south approximately 80,000 were moving through northern Czechoslovakia, some destined for western Sudetenland, others for Bavaria and southern Wurtemburg.
By March certain large stalags lying within a central belt straddling the Elbe and continuing through western Bavaria had become reception centres for displaced prisoners of war. Conditions in these camps were bad. At Stalag IIIA at Luckenwalde, to which part of Stalag Luft III had gone, all compounds were so badly overcrowded that when the three tiers of beds were filled there were still hundreds of men sleeping on the floor. Old disused and dilapidated barracks were brought into use. Washing and latrine facilities were totally inadequate. Rations were very short and Red Cross food parcels were lacking for nine weeks. There were nothing like enough medicines and drugs to make possible proper treatment of the sick.
Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel had received the prisoner evacuees from Thorn some seven months previously, but the continual page 460 arrival of new batches in 1945 produced conditions similar to those at Luckenwalde, and as early as February new arrivals had to be accommodated in tents on the sports field. To make matters worse, all British prisoners at Fallingbostel had been from 14 January onwards deprived of their palliasses, all but two blankets, and a large proportion of their stools and tables, as a reprisal for alleged British ill-treatment of German prisoners in Egypt. A neutral inspector ascribed the prevalence of bronchitis and chilblains to lack of bedclothing, and after enumerating the reprisal measures, including the suppression of all recreation, described Fallingbostel as ‘a very bad camp’.
Two thousand Air Force prisoners from Stalag Luft III arrived at Marlag-Milag Nord at Westertimke on 5 February, and by mid-March the camp numbers had risen to 6500, a total which included Navy and Air Force prisoners as well as Merchant Navy and other civilian internees. The difficulties common to all these reception centres caused through insufficient bedding and rations were accentuated at Westertimke by the fact that, in the days following their arrival, a large proportion of the Air Force prisoners reported sick.
Accommodation in Stalag XIIIC at Hammelburg was equally cramped. The remnants of Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf who arrived by train on 2 March were crowded into a group of small huts that had once served as the camp's sick-bay. There was the usual shortage of rations and Red Cross supplies, but good weather made it easier to escape out-of-doors from crowded living conditions, and the German guards in Hammelburg appear to have made some attempt to alleviate the prisoners' conditions.
Other groups of evacuated prisoners had gone to Stalag XIIID at Nuremberg, others to Stalag XIA at Altengrabow, and others still to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg. While all these camps suffered from inadequacy of accommodation and lack of food, they were not nearly as bad as an improvised reception camp such as that at Duderstadt, which has already been described. Apart from these large collection centres, numbers of small columns were stopped where they were required for work and lodged in whatever accommodation was available in the nearest village. Thus Arbeitskommando 10503 left their camp at Hirschberg on 5 February, and found themselves 15 days later quartered at Christofsgrund, in western Sudetenland, working on railway maintenance. Other columns still found haven in neither reception centre nor work lager, but continued their wanderings without a break of any length until liberation.
Those camps in the western and central zones of Germany which had not become reception centres during the first three months of page 461 1945 escaped the worst results of an inrush of additional prisoners into already overcrowded quarters. Their living conditions nevertheless showed a steady deterioration: Red Cross food almost petered out; the German rations were cut and the supply became more haphazard as Allied air activity increased; fuel was sufficient for perhaps three hours' heating out of twenty-four. In officers' and NCOs' camps the lack of food and heating and the increasing distraction of air raids made study and recreation extremely difficult. In March the Senior Medical Officer of Oflag VIIIF at Brunswick wrote:
…. a marked deterioration of the general condition of the camp during the last three months, most marked since the supply of parcels was exhausted. All officers have lost a considerable amount of weight and are very pale and anemic. Although at the moment there is no serious increase in disease, at any moment we may get an epidemic and with officers in their present low state of resistance, the disease would spread throughout the camp.
In early April there were cases of starvation and oedema and a great deal of bronchial trouble. Seven weeks on a bare minimum of 1300 calories a day had been sufficient to reduce everyone to an extremely poor physical condition.
One officers' camp suffered the same reprisals as Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel. On 15 January, on orders from the German High Command, a statement was read to the prisoners of Oflag VIIB at Eichstaett describing the conditions at a camp for German prisoners in Egypt, conditions to which (the statement went on to say) those at Oflag VIIB were now to be ‘assimilated’. All palliasses (except those of the sick) and nine-tenths of all tables and stools were removed, and all public and recreation rooms were closed until further notice. In the freezing cold of a German January sleeping without a palliasse was a considerable discomfort, and shortage of food and fuel and lack of mail did not lessen the feeling of strain which most men were now experiencing. The fuel supplied was inadequate to keep ice off the frames and insides of the windows even during the day, and the dampness rising from the nearby river laid a depressing cloak over the whole camp area.
At the large NCOs' camp, Stalag 383, at Hohenfels, theatre and other recreation rooms were given up to accommodate new prisoners. During this period at Stalag 383, besides the same discomforts as those already noted in the accounts of other camps, the normal arrangements for emptying latrine cesspits broke down completely, with the result that there was a ‘continuous overflow’ and a situation reported by a neutral inspector as ‘indescribable’. German daily rations for prisoners were estimated to yield an approximate average of 1200 calories a day in February and 800 calories a day in March. page 462 It was with great relief, therefore, that the camp saw the first ‘white angel’ Red Cross lorry1 arrive with an emergency supply of food parcels from Geneva.
The major concern of prisoners working at Arbeitskommandos in the industrial area of Wehrkreis IV and of those at the large stalags in this area was to make sure that they were adequately protected from the dangers of air raids. Casualties among prisoners both in main camps and at places of work, of which there had been a number in 1944, continued in 19452 as the Allied bombing concentrated more intensively on the heart of Germany. Fortunately, in many camps the German guards had been persuaded to allow prisoners a certain measure of freedom to seek shelter when an air-raid alert was signalled.
It will be clear from what has been said that, if living conditions in German camps in early 1945 were a severe hardship for fit prisoners, they were much more so for the sick and disabled. Fortunately nearly 2000 of the remaining British Commonwealth sick and wounded prisoners were spared the later stages of disorder in Germany by being exchanged at the end of January. Of the 89 New Zealanders in this party, the largest groups were sufferers from bad wounds and amputations, or from lung and related infections; the smaller groups were sufferers from mental conditions, from stomach disorders, and from blindness.
1 ‘White angels’ was the name given by prisoners of war to the lorries used by the International Red Cross Committee to distribute relief supplies in Europe during the last months of the war. They were painted white and had large Red Cross emblems on sides and roof.
On 7 March the United States forces crossed the Rhine at Remagen, and on the 24th there were large-scale crossings in preparation for the final drive into Germany from the west. In conformity with the policy of moving prisoners away from approaching Allied forces, the German High Command ordered the most westwardly situated camps to be evacuated eastwards towards central Germany and Bavaria. Several officers' camps containing New Zealanders, Oflag XIIB, Oflag IXA/H, Oflag IXA/Z and Oflag VA, thus found themselves on the move before the end of March. Other groups of prisoners who had already marched from the east to a reception centre such as Stalag XIIIC at Hammelburg were ordered out on the road again to move south-eastwards into Bavaria. Some columns, their move from the east still uncompleted, were forced to turn round and almost retrace their steps. But glorious spring weather had arrived, and with it the final stage of captivity. Within a month liberation came to most of these prisoners either at their new reception centre or en route.
Oflag XIIB at Hadamar, only 25 miles from the Rhine, was one of the first of these camps to be moved. On 21 March half the prisoners were taken on lorries 30 or 40 miles to a transit camp at Lollar to await rail transport further east. Before the remainder moved next day a New Zealand brigadier1 took advantage of an air raid to cut the inner wire and slip through to concealment inside the outer fence. At dusk he climbed the gates and walked away disguised as a Dutch worker. After four nights' and three days' walking he reached wooded country near the Rhine, where he was able to contact United States forces. He was in England before the end of the month.
The special train waiting to take the prisoners on to Brunswick was bombed and they remained in the transit camp at Lollar, which a New Zealand officer describes in his dairy:
The whole scene is like a beehive. P.T., walking, toiletting, eating, brewing, sun-bathing, haircutting, playing, building, throwing, plane spotting—a mass of activity looked at by bored sentries, gaping foreign workers and women … and all the time the sound of battle in the distance.
On 28 March the prisoners from Oflag IXA/Z at Rotenburg were ordered out of their camp and forced to march east. Bed sheets sewn up to form the letters PW were carried and were laid out on the ground whenever a group of Allied planes seemed likely to pay attention to the column. The weather was fine, and by trading cigarettes and soap in the countryside for fresh food the marchers lived well. Moving some eight or nine miles a day, the column kept just out of reach of liberation by United States forces until after 14 days a swift thrust by the latter placed it in the middle of an artillery duel at Wimmelberg, near Halle. The German guards abandoned the prisoners and on the following day, 13 April, tanks of the United States Third Army overran the area. The prisoners were fortunate enough to be flown to England almost immediately.
The column from Oflag IXA/H at Spangenburg left a day later than that from Rotenburg, and had a pleasant seven days tramping through upland country towards the Harz Mountains before being liberated by an American jeep shortly after crossing the Werra near Eschwege, not far from Kassel. After a few days there they were flown to Paris, taken by train to Le Havre, and flown (as one repatriate saw it) ‘through the spring sunshine across the Channel, over the coastline … and touched down—immortal moment—on Westcott aerodrome near Aylesbury.’
After a week of delaying by a commandant and guards who would clearly have preferred to stay, Oflag VA was evacuated by train from Weinsberg on the night of 31 March. The German authorities agreed to move only by night, to allow prisoners off the train into neighbouring fields by day, and to have the train marked on the roofs of trucks with the Red Cross emblem, a Union Jack, and the letters PW. It had been originally intended that the move should be to Oflag VIIB at Eichstaett, but the ultimate destination turned out to be Stalag VIIA at Moosburg. The 150-mile journey was made to take four nights' travelling by train and three days' pleasant picnicking in the fields. But the Allied advance proved unexpectedly sluggish in this sector and the transferred officers had to wait for their liberation at Moosburg.page 465
Six New Zealand airmen fell into German hands in 1945, in time to go through the German Air Force reception organisation before its final disintegration. One of them1 escaped from Dulag Luft at Wetzlar before it was completely evacuated.2 He made his break on the last day of March and reached the Allied lines the same day. Auswertestelle West, the interrogation centre, remained at Oberursel until 15 April, when it moved to Nuremberg-Bushenbühl. Its various departments had earlier been dispersed over what then remained of Germany. When the American troops overran it on 25 April they found completely derelict what had been for five and a half years the headquarters of the German Air Interrogation Service. ‘Its microphones had been disconnected, its records burnt or evacuated … the doors of its 240-odd solitary confinement cells hung ajar….’
Stalag XIIIC was evacuated from Hammelburg on 27 March, a few hours before the American spearhead reached it. Marching columns set out in the early afternoon and kept going nearly all night to cover over 25 miles. In the next three to four weeks they covered some 230 miles in a south-easterly direction to reach Gutersberg, a few miles from Moosburg, on 22 April. During the march all manner of trolleys and handcarts had been improvised or appropriated to carry baggage; the prisoners' billets at night had been reasonably comfortable, and they had often done quite well for food from the surrounding countryside. Near Nuremberg they had received some Red Cross food sent out to them from the large stalag situated there, and loaded ‘white angel’ trucks were waiting at the farm at Gutersberg where they were billeted at the end of their march. By that time, too, the German ration officer was more than willing to co-operate; he ordered the killing of a pig and a steer, besides stocks of other food from the nearest large town. On 27 April an American tank column reached them, and in the next few days the prisoners scattered about the countryside, eventually making their way to a United States Army headquarters at Mainburg. They were evacuated from the airfield at Regensburg.
The trainload of sick from Duderstadt, as well as another trainload which had gone direct from Görlitz on 17 February, reached Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel. By April this camp contained some 20,000 prisoners of war of mixed nationalities, and as new parties continued to arrive, organisation and supplies became more and more strained. Food parcels brought by Red Cross ‘white angels’ from Lubeck gave relief during the very hungry days. On 13 April the German commandant announced that the British forces were very close and that he proposed to move his guard company, leaving a token guard on the camp to avoid possible interference by SS troops in the area. Senior prisoner NCOs then took over the complete administration of the camp, even to issuing leave passes to the German guards. On the morning of 16 April British tanks arrived at the camp gates.
At the more recently formed Stalag 357 an attempt was made to move the Air Force NCOs north-east to Lubeck. They set out on 6 April, short of food but very cheerful, since it was obvious that the end could not be far off. In their weakened state many found the march strenuous, but foraging in the countryside enabled them to eat better than they had done for some months. They were well informed of the state of the war, for they carried several radio receivers with the column and circulated their own news bulletins several times a day. The German guards took little interest, and many men left the column. Those who remained with it had not long to wait before being overtaken by the spearhead of the British Army on 18 April near Lake Ratzenberger.
A similar attempt was made to retain control of naval and air force officers at Marlag-Milag Nord. After a period during which attempts were made by camp leaders to delay the move, they were marched off on 10 April. Good weather and the warning they had page 467 received of the move made possible a properly organised line of march: they were reported as moving in squadrons at 200-yard intervals with senior officers and interpreters in the rear. They marched north-east across the Elbe and went into billets on a large estate at Trenthorst, near Lubeck, on 27 April. Five days later they saw the first British jeep arrive, and they were evacuated to an airfield by a British Army lorry column a day or two afterwards. The other ranks and Merchant Navy prisoners who remained at Westertimke experienced the same fading out of German control which occurred at most camps. During the last week or two large numbers of prisoners continued to come in from the surrounding area, and a serious food situation was only prevented by the arrival of trucks of parcels from Lubeck. Finally, on 28 April fighting round the camp ceased and it was freed by a British armoured division.
As the military situation deteriorated, the German leaders tried to move prisoners they considered to be of the highest value into the Austrian ‘redoubt’ area around Salzburg. The collection at Oflag IVC of a number of prisoner relatives of high-placed Allied persons has already been mentioned. On the night of 12–13 April they were taken away under heavy guard to Laufen in Bavaria, and were to go on into the ‘redoubt’ area. But the efforts of a Swiss envoy and their own protests persuaded a senior SS officer to let the party go through to the American lines under Swiss protection. Those who remained in Oflag IVC were liberated on 15 April by the United States forces twenty-four hours or so after the ‘hostages’ had been taken away.
In the same way the Germans began to move camps in northern Bavaria south-east towards Moosburg, as the American advance approached them. Oflag VIIB at Eichstaett was paraded on 14 April (as one New Zealander put it), ‘packed and loaded indescribably with food and belongings’, and moved off on the road south. They had barely gone a few hundred yards down the road when they were attacked by Allied aircraft and suffered serious casualties.1 The column returned to camp, did not move again until next evening, and continued to move only by night and to rest up by day. In their nine days on the road the prisoners lived well on what they obtained from the countryside, as well as on the food they brought with them, and they arrived in Stalag VIIA in good condition.
1 Seven killed, four seriously wounded, and 42 wounded. The serious casualties included two New Zealanders, one of whom died later.
2 About 9000 British were actually in the stalag, of whom nearly 3000 were officers.
The NCOs at the large Bavarian Stalag 383 were also moved towards Moosburg but did not reach it. All but 1500 of the 7000 NCOs left on foot on 13 April, and 1000-odd who could not make the march for medical reasons were brought along by road transport. Several hundred are estimated to have hidden up in the camp, escaped detection in the hurried German withdrawal, and waited till the United States forces arrived. The main party marched solidly for three days until they were south of the Danube. Then, after a three days' rest at Ingolstadt, all but a skeleton guard of Germans abandoned them and they were quietly overrun by the United States forces.
Some columns were kept on the move until the end, except for short breaks when they were forced to work. During March the Milowitz party, still some 1400 strong, continued moving south-west in western Sudetenland, where the not too friendly population gave them almost nothing and lost many potatoes, turnips, and even chickens as a result. An issue of half a Red Cross parcel to each man on the 17th relieved an almost desperate food situation. The appearance of Allied aircraft overhead also did much to cheer a by now weary and footsore band. By the end of the month they were halted in a small village 50 miles east of Nuremberg and billeted in an old pottery factory. Here some were ‘chased’ out to work several times, cleaning up bomb damage, but others were able to rest and sunbathe and try to get clean; all had the same constant struggle to get somehow enough food to keep going.page 469
After nearly two weeks' ‘spell’ the party was suddenly moved south again, and hard marching brought them to the Danube near Regensburg on 16 April. Part of the column had barely crossed the river when a large formation of Allied planes came over and bombed the bridge. Some 25 prisoners1 were killed and a larger number wounded. The whole party was scattered and some made off on their own account, though others returned in the course of the next day or two, preferring at this stage of the war to take advantage of the security afforded by a large organised party. The latter continued to move south, and on the 19th Red Cross food parcels again reached them. Eventually, on the 27th, they were put in a tented camp on the riverbed near Landshut, where they were scarcely under guard at all. A New Zealander's diary tells the story of their last hours of captivity:
It's rather peculiar the way things are going. We are just sitting round cooking and washing while a war goes on all around us. The Jerries just left a big ration cart along from us, and the Russians and our lads soon had it torn apart. The Jerry guards were also pitching their rifles and gear into the river and heading away. Tanks are not so very far from us now it seems.—(Two hours later)—the first american tanks and reconnaissance cars come racing down the road towards us! Saw a lot of fellows break down and cry with relief….
The column from Oderburg marched for some 720 miles before it was released. After two months on the road, these men were in the same condition as those in the other columns which had travelled long distances. Their boots were worn, their clothing lice-infested, their bodies tired and undernourished. The party went to Karlsbad and then down to the flatter country around Chemnitz, where they received an issue of Red Cross food parcels brought by ‘white angel’ trucks. From Weiden they were taken on by train in late April to Plattling, where they were billeted in an old grain store. The day after arrival they were put on railway construction work for a new line that was being laid in that area, but a heavy air raid on the railway station caused their labours to be diverted to the clearing of debris. After five days they were moved south again away from the United States forces, but the latter were close behind them. Eventually their guards abandoned them 20 miles from Moosburg, and here the Americans overtook them.
Prisoner-of-war hospitals were among the few groups which were not made to move in one direction or the other across Germany in early 1945. But the days preceding their release were often none the less difficult and anxious. Medical officers were alive to the havoc that would be caused in a hospital full of patients by the bombing or shelling it might undergo when the fighting zone reached it. From the Bad Soden eye-centre the senior officers were able to get a letter to the United States forces asking them if possible to occupy the town without action; and this was done. Other hospitals not so well placed to make contact with the approaching forces had to accept the risk of being shelled by mistake and had to take what internal precautions they could. At Tost, in Upper Silesia, there had been barely time to get the bed-patients down into the cellar on 20 January before heavy gunfire made known the proximity of Russian forces, which overran the area later in the day. Fortunately it does not seem that any of the hospitals containing prisoners of war were mistaken by the liberating forces for military targets.
Among the camps liberated by Russian forces was Stalag IIIA at Luckenwalde. An attempt had been made on 14 April to move the RAF officers held there to Moosburg by train, but the latter was unable to go for want of an engine, and those who had been moved to the railway station had to return to camp. In the ensuing days the guards became more and more friendly, and several of them asked for certificates of good conduct to show to Allied forces. On 21 April the commandant formally handed over the camp to the senior Allied officer and the German guard marched off. Next day a Russian armoured car entered the camp, and a few days later fighting in the neighbourhood ceased. On 6 May a United States lorry convoy arrived to take away British, American, and other Allied prisoners, but the Russian commander refused to allow them to go and some lorries taking out prisoners had shots fired over them by Russian troops. Conferences with the Russians and further attempts to evacuate the camp proved fruitless until the page 471 arrival of a senior Russian officer in charge of repatriation. Nearly a month after their release, the rest of the prisoners were evacuated by Russian transport and handed over to the United States forces near Wittenberg.
The ten thousand or so Air Force prisoners in Stalag Luft I at Barth were more fortunate in their experience with their Russian liberators. German guards abandoned the camp on 30 April and Russian forces arrived two days later. By this time a section of the prisoners had taken over the nearby airfield. On 12 May British and United States aircraft arrived to evacuate the prisoners, and they were all transported to the United Kingdom by this means.
Release came to prisoners of war in Germany in such a variety of ways that a description of what happened to those at main camps and to a few of the hundreds of smaller parties cannot do more than cover some of the more typical aspects of liberation. Evacuation was a much more uniform affair. For, although a few of our men commandeered transport, most were willing to wait for instructions from those officers of the Allied occupation forces whose task it was to cater for released prisoners.
A plan had been made by SHAEF in the autumn of 1944 for this evacuation, and a central organisation known as PWX was set up at Supreme Allied Headquarters, with liaison groups at major headquarters which worked through contact officers. The latter were sent forward by every possible means to areas where prisoners were assembled. There were representatives from the Dominions and from all arms of the service in these contact teams. They carried instructions to the prisoners in camps to remain there, and for those outside to report to the nearest transit centre, in order to simplify maintenance and documentation and to avoid any uncontrolled movements of prisoners which might hamper operations. A chain of transit centres was set up on the lines of communication, and ad hoc units were formed to organise and maintain them. The latter were equipped with special disinfestation, bathing, clothing and medical facilities, Red Cross services, YMCA teams to organise amenities, and Army Education teams to give up-to-date information. The plan was to evacuate prisoners by air to the United Kingdom. In view of the bad physical condition of many prisoners resulting from the forced marches they had undergone, the air evacuation was pushed forward with all possible speed, and some of the services provided at transit centres on the Continent never had a chance to function fully.
Ex-prisoners either remained in their camps, or were taken to a transit centre, or were found billets until they could be evacuated from the nearest important airfield. Sometimes ‘K’ rations and page 472 other army rations were supplied to prisoners in billets. As soon as possible they were taken to the airfield by army lorries and organised into groups of 30-odd ready for emplaning.
Almost as soon as the flights of Dakota transport aircraft arrived they loaded, took off, and headed back towards the west. Only the prisoners from a few camps in north-west Germany were evacuated direct to the United Kingdom in British aircraft; most were taken to France or Belgium, where they broke their journey and spent a night, or a few hours only, at a specially prepared transit centre before going on. Most of our men seem to have gone to either Rheims or Brussels.
The transit centre at Brussels, which was the one to which it had been intended that the majority of British ex-prisoners should go, received and sent on some 40,000 of them in three weeks at the end of April and in early May. As the streams of Dakotas arrived from Germany and unloaded, lorries took the ex-prisoners to the transit centre; and at the same time streams of British four-engined bombers were taking on to England those who had already passed through. At the centre they were given showers, new uniforms, and an advance on pay. They could stay a night in an hotel run by the Belgian Red Cross Society; they had full use of recreation rooms run by the YMCA; and they could go on leave to take advantage of private hospitality, or to buy presents in the city, or just to look around. A liaison officer speaks of the prisoners being ‘all in rocketing spirits’. But most of our men's spirits did not reach their climax until they arrived in England, for not until then were they back among people and in an environment nearly the same as their own. There was in England the additional thrill of seeing again (or seeing for the first time) the country from which the forbears of most of them had come during the last hundred years. At this point many consistently kept diaries finished abruptly. Here was an opportunity to be seized rather than written about; and most of the diarists no doubt had much the same feeling as the one whose last entry reads, ‘Can’t be bothered writing any more. Going to start out and enjoy myself.'