The Long March into Captivity– Summer 1940
In June 1940, after the withdrawal from Dunkirk, British troops left in France to cover the rearguard were the 51(Highland) Division, 1 Armoured Division, together with remnants from the 12 & 23 Divisions and some lines of communication troops which had been quickly put together as the Beauman Division. The British troops were supporting the French, and were forced to retire westwards after the German Armoured thrust across the Somme. Parts of 51(HD) Div, 1 Armd Div and the Beauman Div managed to get away through other western ports together, although the bulk of the rearguard in close contact with the enemy were overwhelmed by enemy armour. By 12 June, fighting had ceased, and all troops in a battle line from St Valery en Caux to a point twenty five miles up the River Seine had been captured. At the ceasefire, because mainly ammunition had ran out, small groups of men and individuals had now scattered throughout northern France. Many were given help, treated for their injuries and hidden in safe-houses. Most of these men were the early evaders.
Following the capture of a significant number of Allied PoWs the Germans decided to march them into captivity into camps situated mainly in Germany. Deprived now of their arms but still retaining personal items in back packs the majority of the POWs were army, but the marchers also included RAF and Royal Navy. All who could walk were tired, hungry and dispirited. The German troops did not fare much better. They had not expected to be marching with POWs, nor to have had such a large number. They had also outrun their admin backup and were hungry themselves. The march continued for a month, averaging between sixteen and twenty miles a day. The main route for the majority was Domart, St Pol, Bethune, and Seclin in France; Tournai, Renaix, Ninove, St Nicholas in Belgium; Hulst, Walsoorden, in Holland; Wesel, Hemer, and onward distribution to Oflags and Stalags in Germany. A second route used for walking wounded and others was Amiens, Cambrai and Luxembourg into Germany. Many men slipped away from both routes assisted by the local population.
The POW marchers walked over miles of cobbled roads causing badly blistered feet, with the added problem of walking for three hours without a break. Night time was spent in churches, fields, barns, schools, factories, racecourses, sports centres, barracks and prisons. Groups of over 5000 men were held at overnight locations, with up to 300 officers, many with just a poncho over them lying in a field to protect against the rain. Food and nightly camps improved slightly as the men marched north. Washing facilities became better with tubs on St Pol racecourse and cold showers at Tournai prison. Meals were also provided by the townspeople of Bethune, Doullens, Tournai, Ninove and St Nicholas. On many occasions passing through the towns of France shouts of les Anglais would spread quickly and old ladies and young women would run alongside the men, often in tears, talking in a language the men could not understand, and at the same time passing them covertly, bread, butter, wine, eggs and sugar. The men never forgot this kindness from people who had very little themselves and were often from the poor mining communities of northern France. The mining communities were particularly helpful at night with young women taking the men’s money in darkness through the prison gate bars and searching the towns and villages for their shopping lists. They always returned with food. On one particular day in very hot sun, the column had halted for a rest in a field near a French mining town when the ladies of the town had collected buckets of hot coffee, food, and other items that could be of use to the prisoners. They refused all payment.
The men marched on into Belgium, at first ignored by the local population, who looked sullen and hostile, but as they neared Brussels they became more welcoming and on many occasions not only gave the men food and drink, but also helped many to leave the line of march to be hidden in Brussels. On other occasions they provided food shelters overnight for the prisoners. The march continued into Holland and the atmosphere became very friendly. Food, drink and gifts were distributed by the Dutch people together with newly baked Dutch loaves. The loaves the men still remember. North of Hulst, at Walsoorden, the men completed the last part of the march, eighteen miles, to the jetty. They washed and bathed in the sea water.
On June 29, one of the columns were jammed on to a Rhine steamer (1200), with others jammed into large Rhine barges towed by tugs. Food for two days was a small loaf. Hardly any drinking water in very hot weather and the men could hardly move. They passed through the Scheldt to the Waal and moored at Dordecht for a short while. A young Dutch girl and boy serenaded the prisoners with a guitar from their canoe, and later Dutch boy scouts brought cake and honey for the prisoners which was the only food that day. On the night of the 30 June the barges were tied up at Tiel, the men were hungry, cold and dirty. They received no food that day. On July 01 they arrived in Germany at Wesel. They were allowed off the boats to a public park where they washed, rested, and were fed. They were given two meals of bread, cheese and coffee. The German people dealt with them efficiently, without hostility but in silence. Most now moved by freight trains to a barracks where they rested for three days. Others continued down the Rhine in barges. The main column moved on again by train, after sixty hours with hardly any food or water they arrived at Oflag VIIC at Laufen.
The Long March to Freedom – Winter 1944/45
Throughout the Second World War the Third Reich held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs in a comprehensive network of camps, situated mainly in Germany and Poland. Following the UK/US invasion of France in June 1944, and the major Russian offensive from the east, Hitler had issued orders for the defence of the Reich, which included the evacuation of prisoners from Poland to northern Germany around Lubeck and Hamburg, and to Saxony. It was thought at that time that they might be used as hostages or as a bargaining tool in any peace negotiations. It was this decision which was to bring about the forced movement of thousands of POWs in what would subsequently be called “The Long March”, during the winter of 1944/45 .
Politically, the liberation of thousands of British POWs by the Russians was a difficult situation. Over 150,000 British & Commonwealth POWs were held in German camps, about 100,000 of whom were in the path of the Russian armies. In the Western part of Germany, over 360,000 Russian POWs lay in the path of the British and American Armies racing for Berlin. Forced to march hundreds of miles in severe winter conditions of snow and ice, sub-zero temperatures, with little food or water, and using whatever shelter might be available, the POWs were subjected to horrendous conditions. Hundreds died of starvation and disease, hyperthermia, exhaustion and dehydration. Many of these men had taken part in the Long March in 1940.
Many POWs both army and RAF, from many camps, were involved in the marches. In one camp, Stalag Luft III at Sagan, the prisoners were given thirty minutes to gather in their possessions and form up at the roadway known as Broadway. The men hastily made rucksacks, broke up furniture to make sledges which became very large with eight men pulling and sharing, and also one man sledges. Given Red Cross parcels, the men were kept out on parade in the harsh winter conditions for two hours until 0400 on the 27 January 1945, when the first group walked out of the camp gate. The ordeal of the prisoners was harsh and very confusing. The largest of the Stalag Luft camps, Sagan was the scene of the Wooden Horse escape and also the Great Escape in March 1944. The men marched through the gates of the camp to an uncertain fate
They marched through the Silesian countryside reaching the town of Halbau by 0800. Over 500 crammed into the church to keep warm. Travelling in the general direction of Berlin, using small towns and hamlets on route, they sought shelter in abandoned factories and farm barns. The weather was atrocious; many of the men had been interned for over five years with little physical activity and as a result collapsed by the roadside from exhaustion, malnutrition, cold and fever. Veterans have commented on the attitude of the German people. Some offered limited assistance, others were very hostile and attacked the airmen.
With little space in farm buildings many marchers banked up straw against walls and buildings to make shelter. Later this was covered in snow and gave better shelter. The roads were appalling with deep grooves and ridges made from horse drawn carts, many of which were carrying refugees away from the advancing Russians. Food supplies were haphazard, and the marchers were forced to supplement their meagre Red Cross rations with whatever they could buy/barter/scrounge or steal.
As the marchers moved westwards, a thaw set in and the cold, dry and conditions were replaced with wet, cold conditions. As a result the marchers feet were soaking wet, trench foot became rife and it became difficult to drag sledges which were getting stuck in mud. The weather frequently changed from snow to rain. Routes now became littered with abandoned kit and sledges. Those at the rear of the march benefitted from pillaging the discarded items for food, dry clothing, blankets, tea and coffee. Many of the marchers were now suffering from dysentery caused by the lack of clean drinking water. The camp guards who also had to march with the prisoners, were suffering in the same way. They had no food or water, were mainly elderly, and from the start many could not manage the march. On many occasions, despite being tightly packed in barns with hundreds of other marchers, they all had difficulty starting the next day’s walk because of frozen boots and frozen clothing. Cooking was also difficult because of frozen hands and fingers. Frost bite, hyperthermia and vomiting was rife. No sanitary arrangements or facilities were available. Many German villages bartered hot water, wheel barrows and carts to the marchers for Red Cross food parcels.
March discipline by the guards at the start had now gone and the prisoners organised themselves. A number of prisoners broke ranks and slipped away to try and make contact with the advancing Allies whose guns they could hear in the far distance. Many evaded marauding bands of SS troops who were searching for German deserters and shooting people on sight. The marchers also found themselves walking with German refugees fleeing the Russians and concentration camp inmates who also had to walk into Germany. Spremberg, approx 60 miles south of Berlin was reached at 1500 on the 02 February 45. Accommodation was provided by the 8 Panzer Division, soup was issued and hot water available. It could not be taken up however as at 1600 they were ordered to start walking again. On this occasion the men walked to the station about a mile away and learnt that their final destination was Milag-Marlag Nord Camp about twenty miles from Bremen.
Now allocated to filthy cattle trucks, 45 men to a truck, they had to firstly clear out all of the excrement off the floor both animal and human. With so many men in each carriage sleep was only possible sitting in a crouched position or standing. They were wedged in and unable to move. The only good points were that they were not walking, they received Red Cross parcels and two thirds of a loaf of bread. They remained in the trucks for two nights and two days and were dispersed throughout Germany to other Oflags and Stalags which were already overcrowded.
The Long Marches of 44/45 were etched into the memory of soldiers and airmen alike. A smaller number of sailors were also involved. The routes were horrific, confusing, and many men died on route. The above route covers aircrew from Stalag Luft III, but all marchers have similar experiences.
Thanks must go to Dr Howard Tuck, ELMS, RAF Historian, for the information on the winter of 44/45