The Long March – Account 2 by Jonathan Wilkinson, 5th Bn Hampshire Regt
January – April 1945
The map shows the approximate route taken to give an idea of the distance involved. It is simply the shortest route between a number of waypoints, and does not reflect the frequent use of minor roads and diversions that the marchers had to follow.
Escape Attempt Fails — Only Four Days of Freedom.
Early January 1945 we heard rumours that the Russian troops were advancing rapidly from the east (began the offensive on 12th), and German soldiers were starting to pull out with some panic being surprised by the speed of their advance.
On January 19th on the eve of a full parade, Jackie Hicks, Alf Forester, a young lad who could speak German and Polish, and I decided to try to escape and wait for the Russians. We worked out that if we timed things we could scramble, undetected by searchlight, into the roof of our hut via the air vent. This we did one at a time. We heard the lads falling in for parade, and the counts. Then we heard shouting as the guards started to search with German shepherd dogs — but despite gun fire into the ceiling we were not detected. Luck was on our side as they were in a desperate hurry to leave and could not waste any more time searching. We intended to stay put in the roof until the Russians arrived, but thirsty and hungry, and pestered by the young lad who wanted to see his Polish girlfriend, we ventured out the second night. Dodging the soldiers, we made it safely to her house. We were just having a warm drink when a German ‘home guard’ walked in. It seemed an age for the ‘penny to drop’ but he eventually covered us with his gun and marched us out into the street. We were handed over to the Wehrmacht. I often wonder what would have happened if we had remained hidden and had been ‘freed’ by the Russians. There are many stories of men who had very rough treatment being sent 2,000 miles to Odessa for shipment home … and those who did not return.
We were marched to a Div HQ, questioned and pushed into a damp cellar with some Russian prisoners. I slept with my gear and a little food as my pillow, but in the morning the food had gone! On 24th January, we were put on a train to Ratibor (Raciborz) at the start of our long march west back into south east Germany. Three days later the Russians liberated Auschwitz.
The Long March West Back To Germany.
After three days of walking and train journeys in the freezing cold we left the Russian POWs and joined a British column. We had our first meal for 4 days. This was the start of a 88 day, 800 mile march in the freezing cold and snow of Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia and south east Germany. With little food or shelter our 250-300 man column was forced to march 10 to 15 miles a day (Geneva Convention set a maximum of 20km), through country lanes between 46 small villages. We slept where we could in barns, farmyards and haystacks. I now understand that this was just one column of many allied pows marching through eastern Europe before the Russian advance. In the cold and snow, suffering from hunger, frostbite and exhaustion we had no idea where we were going, but I kept a diary of the village names. Only recently, with the aid of the internet, it has been possible to translate the old German place-names and plot them on a modern map of the Czech Republic.
We skirted north of Olomouc towards Moravska Trebova, then north west to the ouskirts of Hradec Kralove, westwards round the top of Praha, back into Sudetenland and Marianske Lazne and into Bavaria in Germany. The first section was extremely hard going with very little food and drink, and freezing conditions and deep snow. We slept in barns, cowsheds and outbuildings, often huddled together in the straw to keep warm. We marched into Sudetenland (ceded to Germany at Munich in 1938 as ‘peace in our time’) between Bransdorf (Brantice), Freudenthal (Bruntal), Tillendorf (Bridlicna), Lobewitz (Moravsky Beroun), Komaru, Mahr Aussee, Charlottendorf, Ketelsdorf (Moravska Trebova), Lauterbach (Cista). When we reached Benatek (Litomysl) we passed into Czechoslovakia and things improved slightly. Local people were much more friendly and sometimes threw us scraps of food. The guard started to give us rest days. But lads were dropping out and dying, and at times the guards had outbreaks of undue violence. Faces just disappeared. We reached Hermanice on 15th February and marched on to Ostretin, Chvojenec and then Praskarka (south of Hradec Kralove). On the 22nd February, we rested in a barn at Cisteves (west of Hradec Kralove), and an exhausted Alf Forester talked me into trying to escape. I was not happy about making a break because we had no idea where we were or how we would survive. In the early hours we climbed up to the loft of our barn and hid amongst the hay bales. Roll call came and Alf asked me ‘what are they doing’. They are counting the men… what are they doing, they are counting again… and again oh they are fixing bayonets. They came up the ladder, moving bales and pushing bayonets into the straw. Suddenly Alf let out a howl, a bayonet had pierced the heel of his boot. We then found out that 8 of us had tried to hide at the same time. Our punishment was a freezing night out in a farmyard in Dolni Dobra Voda — but I did find some big ‘spuds’ meant for the pigs. Next morning we were in front of a luger tossing German Major. We felt we were about to be shot. Instead he spoke to me in perfect English (Cambridge University), and we talked about the war… I said ‘you had to carry the Italians’, ‘yes but you had the Yanks’ was the reply. For the next few days I had to march alone at the head of the column, which was growing daily with the addition of new groups and nationalities. Our route took us north of Prague through Luzany, Libuna (Liban), Judensdorf, Choterov, Lehan (Labem), Drinov, Bratkovice (Cernuc), Rustviny, Krupa, and Horesedl (Horovicky) and on 8th March we passed back into Sudetenland. We heard rumours that German towns had fallen to the allies and the march would end in 4 days. But the march went on to Lubenz (Lubenec), Klein Werscheditz, Gabhorn (Javorna), Neudorf (Nova Ves), Royau (Rajov), Abaschin (Zavesin). We began to hear news of allied bombing raids on German towns. On 19th March on the way to Unter Sandau (Dolni Zandov) some 300 planes passed overhead and bombed the nearby town of Mariembad. We began to worry about becoming a target for friendly fire.
Two days later we reached Bergnerseuth in Germany. Here we were ‘rested’ for 19 days, and the RAF planes were seen almost every day. I ‘jumped’ at the chance to chop wood for the Frau at the local beershop, and was rewarded with extra rations and my third bath in the snow since leaving Kazimer. On 11th April we began the final stage of our march into Bavaria. At Seussen we were deloused and then continued to Marktredwitz and slept in proper billets. Next day we worked on a bombed railway siding before marching to Wiesau. More Red Cross parcels became available as we continued to Wildenau, Altenstadt, Bernreith, Tannesberg, and Konatsreid. Guards became more relaxed as more news of allied advances came through. At Hitzelsberg a number of American fighters flew over us and dipped their wings as I celebrated my third birthday as a POW. On 23rd April at Thiermietnach we heard that American tanks were only 5km away, and we refused to march further. The guards threatened to call the SS but we knew it was a hollow threat. The guards decided to lay down their rifles and the next day at 1700 hours we were freed by the American tanks. Freedom 24th April 1945. The next week was spent enjoying our freedom in and around Thiermietnach with trips into Falkenstein, Rodin and Cham. We heard the welcome news that Hitler had killed himself.
Eventually, an American truck took us to a small airfield at Cham where a Dakota C-47 flew us to Rheims on 2nd May 1945. Next morning we were given a full US uniform, and the next day I was the first to see the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters from the front gunner’s seat of a Lancaster. The 8th May the Germans surrendered.
I arrived at home in Southampton unannounced and had 6 weeks glorious leave. No one talked about my experiences, there was no counselling. For months I was not able to sleep in a real bed. Then all to soon, I was sent to Colchester, Catterick and then Berlin with post-war policing and guard duties. I was present at the amazing Victory Parade. Eventually, I returned home to take up my job in Southampton.
Only in the last few years have I been able to talk about my experiences to my family and friends, and participate in veteran and ex-pow activities. Throughout my captivity, I was determined to keep up my fitness levels and I am aware how important was my love of sport in getting me through this very hard and challenging time.
WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar’