An account of the first part of the march from Stalagluft III by Group Capt. D.E.L. Wilson, Camp SBO
|The following excerpts were obtained from the definitive and official 9000-word report by Group Captain D.E.L. Wilson, Senior British Officer of 10,500 POW's at Stalag Luft III who were evacuated when Soviet armies broke through German lines and crossed the Oder River south and north of Breslau in late January 1945. He wrote this account on February 20 at Marlag-Milag Nord, a POW camp 40 kilometres southeast of Bremerhaven where 1,916 of us from North camp and 1,050 from the East compound had arrived on February 4.|
By January 19, with Russian forces within striking distance of Breslau and Posen just 140 kilometres from Sagan, we began to prepare for a likely evacuation. Packsacks were made from kitbags to carry between 20 and 40 pounds of food and clothing. Boots were overhauled. Kriegies with foresight built sleighs. Compound circuits were crowded with people training for marching. Yet as late as Saturday morning, January 27, the Camp Kommandant was told by the German High Command in Berlin that LuftIII was not to be evacuated. However, Group Capt. Wilson had learned earlier in the week that German personnel were already being issued two days emergency rations. This accelerated our own preparations. Shortly before 19:00 hrs. that Saturday night the Kommandant was advised from Berlin that "the Camp at Sagan is to march at once.
The march from Sagan began when the Americans left the South Compound at 21:20 hrs and the West Compound at 23:30 hrs on Saturday January 27. At 01:00 hrs Sunday morning North Compound prisoners began to leave, the last man clearing the camp by 03:15 hrs. Centre Compound followed. East Compound began to leave at 06:00 hrs and was clear by 07:00 hrs. The camp at Belaria did not leave until 06:00 hrs Monday morning . . . "No rations were issued but prisoners were allowed to take one Red Cross parcel each. The compounds were ready to march as instructed but there were several hours delay so prisoners were able to repack and have a good meal, Barley oatmeal and some meat was issued from the kitchens. Some was eaten and some packed. One enterprising party carried a leg of veal for the first two days before they managed to have it cooked," Wilson said. "The compounds were left in a state of chaos. At least 23,000 Red Cross food parcels were left behind intact. Prisoners' belongings worth an estimated 250,000 pounds sterling were abandoned. So were more than 100,000 books. At least 2 million cigarettes were left in North and East compounds alone.
Six inches of snow lay on the ground and for the first five days it was very cold, at times intensely so. Several snow storms soaked both kit and clothing so they afterwards froze. On the fifth night there was a sudden thaw. From then on it rained or snowed frequently making conditions sodden underfoot.
The guards, mainly elderly men! were not only insufficient to prevent individual prisoners from escaping but found conditions so severe that it was all they could do to look after themselves. In several instances prisoners helped them by putting their packs into sleds and hauling them along with their own kit. By the second day many guards were unfit for duty.
Guards became .indistinguishable from prisoners, some of the former helping to pull the sleds on which their kits was communally packed, others bartering for sleds themselves. The frequent presence of refugees on the road and the knowledge that the march of British prisoners was part of a gigantic retreat of armies and peoples westward gave colour to a comparison with Napoleon's retreat from Moscow about which so many had read while in captivity. Almost incessantly, far away to the north was the sound of firing, presumed to be the battle around Frankfurt-on-Oder and encouraging the hope that the Russians might yet come to the rescue . .
The North Compound column reached Freiwaldan, where it was informed it would be billeted for the night, at about noon. The column had marched 28 kilometres and prisoners were already tired after a march without adequate meals or halts. Little attempt had been made to find accommodation and the two halls allotted were totally inadequate. After waiting an hour, exhausted and half frozen, prisoners began making their own arrangements for billeting with civilians who were willing to take them in. But though (Luftwaffe) Major Rostek promised to do all he could an objection from either civilian or military authorities in the town led to the German's decision that the march had to be resumed . . . A march to Leippa 6 kilometres further on saw the column in very grim condition.
The column reached Leippa about 17:00 hours and it was discovered the barn could hold only about 600 men; eventually about 700 were crowded in and the rest of the column halted. The wait which followed, lasting almost four hours for some people, was the severest experience on the march. The column had covered 34 kilometres and been on the move over 15 hours without organized meals. Darkness fell shortly after our arrival and the night was one of the coldest of the year. Clothes and boots of prisoners waiting in snow and slush were covered with ice. It was.
almost impossible to obtain a drink and well nigh impossible to prepare even cold food owing to darkness and numb hands. Finally locating Major Rostek, (Wilson) offered parole that no prisoner would escape during the night provided shelter could be provided for everybody.
Eventually more barns were found. However, 60 officers had to spend the night in straw in the lee of a farm-yard wall and many, of them suffered frost-bite and vomiting Other frost-bite cases had occurred during the halt but no medical assistance was forthcoming from the Germans. British medical staff were severely handicapped because of lack of equipment. An issue of a third of a loaf of bread per man was attempted but few obtained it owing to the disorganisation, lack of information where the billets were located and because of darkness. Little water could be obtained. Conditions inside the farms were primitive with light and inadequate straw. People were so cramped it was almost impossible to move and many were forced to urinate where they lay . Meals were impossible in the barns. During the wait on the road several officers collapsed. They were found lying in the ditch by a search party organised by the prisoners themselves.
The march resumed at 08:00 hrs. day after an inaffectual attempt by the Germans to count the prisoners. The fact that all were present, less one too sick to continue, was entirely due to organisation of the prisoners, themselves. It was still freezing hard. Priebus was reached at 11:30 hrs and a half-hour halt was made for lunch. Again no provision was made for water but the people were friendly and most prisoners obtained a little.. Another prisoner was left behind, through illness. Muskau was reached about 18:00 hrs and here for the first time there was evidence of organization by the German military . . . Billets were provided for about 300 in a cinema; about 600 in a glass Factory, about 400 in a riding school, about 150 in a stable, 80 in a laundry, about 100 in a pottery and about 300 at a French POW Camp. Except for the riding school where there were no sanitary arrangements or facilities and the majority caught a mild form of dysentery, all billets were crowded but conditions were tolerable and the civilians in charge did all in their power to make people comfortable.
When the column moved on Thursday, February 1, 57 North Camp prisoners remained in Muskau for medical attention where the French medical officer exhausted a large portion of his supplies for our prisoners' benefit. Meanwhile, about 1500 Red Cross food parcels sent from Sagan were partially issued. About one third of a loaf of bread per man was issued but again not everyone received it. A day earlier 523 American POWs left the North Camp body to join fellow lJSAAF kriegies in other columns of the march. At the same time 566 of the East Camp group formed ranks with the North Camp column.
The column of 1,920 officers and men moved off from the town in complete darkness at 22:45 hrs. A sudden thaw the previous evening made it doubtful the roads would be suitable for sleds .... Within the first few kilometres most of them had to be abandoned and kits transferred to packs or jettisoned, except for those ingenious enough to have acquired wheeled conveyances in Muskau - a child's carriage bought for 100 cigarettes, a wheelbarrow later exchanged for a breakfast of eggs and an assortment of handcarts - prisoners had to carry both their own food and the remainder of the Red Cross parcels issued in Muskau.
Thus the effects of the previous marching - more than one officer had frostbite too severe to wear boots and finished the march in stocking feet - the darkness, the hilly countrv and the Germans' failure to exercise normal march discipline made this the most difficult stage of the journey.
The guards soon abandoned any serious attempt to patrol and straggled or marched with the prisoners as before. The prisoners marched in companies. There was little conversation. Above the sound of muffled footsteps only the grating of the remaining sleighs in the slush could be heard ... One party which had dropped back with a sled was fired on by a guard when they stopped to rearrange their kit. Another halting to eat a meal on the roadside was accosted by a guard with dogs. The dogs, however, proved friendly and it was the guard who was discomfited. A third party fared better. Entering a public house in Jamlitz with a guard to obtain water, they met members of a German panzer division recently engaged at Litzmannstadt. The Germans agreed that the party should spend the night there which they did, talking and sharing rations until a Luftwaffe lorry picked them up in the morning and dropped them off at the Spremberg rendezvous.
Spremberg was reached at 15:00 hrs, February 2, and accommodation for all prisoners was provided in the 8th Panzer Division's reserve depot. Soup was issued and hot water provided. But at 16:00 hrs the order was given to march again and the column left for the station about 3 kilometres away. For the first time our destination was made known, Milag-Marlag Nord Camp, about 30 kilometres from Bremen. Prisoners were allotted to cattle trucks. Even at the scheduled 40 men per truck there were too few; in many there were up to 45. None of the trucks were clean; in many manure and even human excrete had to be cleared away. Except in a few cases the only possible way to sleep was in a sitting position or lying wedged between neighbours and unable to alter the position. These conditions covered two nights and two days ... A ration of two-thirds of a loaf of bread was distributed. 1,500 Red Cross food parcels were also issued. It was arranged that a railway field kitchen should draw alongside the train at Halle but when it reached there at about 21:30 hrs a hospital train from the East had arrived first and exhausted supplies. Once again railway authorities intervened and the train went on with only a few cans of water provided. At about 07:30 hrs on February 4 the train reached the outskirts of Hannover and here Major Rostek gave the order that the prisoners were to be allowed to get water from neighbouring houses. This was the first issue of water since leaving Spremberg 36 hours before.
The train arrived at Tarmstadt at about 17:00 hrs. Sunday, February 4 and the column marched approximately 4 kilometres to Marlag-Milag Nord, the last march leaving the station at about 18:30 hrs and the head of the column reaching the camp gates at about 19:00 hrs. A personal search of each prisoner began at once at the rate of 20 prisoners per batch, but with each search lasting 20 minutes it was soon apparent that it would take more than 30 hours to complete.
Strong representations were made to conduct the search in the camp but the Germans replied that they had to obey orders. Although eventually the search time was reduced to a point where it became perfunctory, it was not until 01:30 hrs February 5 that the last of the prisoners reached the barracks. Meanwhile the column waited outside. It was raining and the prisoners were standing in mud . tracks covered with pools of water. Apart from exhaustion many were suffering from frostbite, dysentery and vomiting. Several collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. For the majority this wait, after eight days of movement under the conditions described, proved the breaking point and more than 70 per cent of the camp suffered gastritis, dysentery, colds, influenza and other illnesses during the first week.
[The second part of the march, "The March to Freedom", is covered by my Diary entries]