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The Thousand Kilometre Walk Part One

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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BBC Southern Counties Radio
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JE Durey
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20 December 2005

During the winter of 1940/41 at Stalag XXB near Danzig (Gdansk) I collapsed and, in a coma for twelve days recovered although I had been certified dead. As a result and being a woodworker by trade I was sent with a sergeant of the REs to a work camp of fifty at Deutsch Eylau to work in a small joinery business making window frames where two Poles and four German lads of descending ages also worked. Being indoors and interesting it suited me very well, not only my heart recovering but learning too. At the camp, there being no medics, I volunteered for the job having previously been a British Red Cross VA worker.

Almost three years passed when I became ill again and returned to the Stalag where duodenal ulcers were found to be the trouble and was put forward for repatriation. I failed the board but was referred to the next.

Free of duties I occupied myself making props for the plays and shows which were of very high standard until January 1945.

Stalag XXB stood on top of a high hill that fell away like a cliff to the Vistula below. It was usual in winter to see school children making their way along the frozen river in snow shoes or skis but from about the second week there were none, only fishermen floating a net between two holes in the ice. The landscape beyond was quite flat to the horizon on the East, and what at first appeared to be a storm approaching, soon revealed the Red Army, the whole skyline edged with smoke and flame without a break.

The Stalag was a base camp that sent prisoners out to jobs over a very large area and these work parties were now being brought back into the camp and it was obvious that preparations were being made to evacuate deeper into Germany with the prospect of a very long march in the worst kind of weather. Although I had good boots and a small sledge for my few possessions I did not believe I would last long but if I could get to the POW hospital in Marienburg a few kilometres away I might come under the Geneva Conventions.

Whilst the majority thought I was mad to take a chance with the Russians, two volunteered to try with me provided they could share my sledge and so we got ready.

The approach to the entrance was crowded with men waiting to be checked in so we boldly marched through under the guards’ noses as if on a specific fatigue and got clear into the open countryside, that is until we saw a long column of German helmets above the hedgerows approaching, giving us just enough time to get the sledge over into a field and bury ourselves in the snow. We emerged having great difficulty restoring our circulation.

The outskirts of Marienburg were deserted but as we swung round into the main street we came face to face with a barricade right across the road manned by tired and dishevelled Germans. We had to halt and put our hands up. I remembered my first aid activities and said we were medics sent to help at the hospital. Well, you never know our luck, they helped us over with the sledge and told us to hurry.

The hospital was a large old house, two sheets pinned together and stretched between two trees bearing something in Russian. At the gate was one of our old grey haired guards. We told him the situation to which he offered, each in turn, his uniform, rifle and ID in return for ours. We sent him along the road to join his brethren.

Inside, medics were busy transferring the bed cases to the basement, only just in time before all Hell broke loose as the Russkies attacked and we were obliged to join the 'walking sick' in either of two covered air raid shelters in the grounds and there we were trapped for nearly six day whilst the battle raged overhead.

I did sneak out one night via a ventilator opening and in fits and starts between cloud cover and moonlight to reach the hut where we had left the precious sledge but there was no water or anything to eat that did not need
cooking but I did wrap a blanket round myself for some warmth. Some nosy blighter got too near the entrance when a mortar landed and he messed himself, as though the air was not fetid and disgusting enough. To add to that a Frenchman sought to peer out of the ventilator hole just as another mortar bomb landed and fell back into a cess pit dug into the side as a latrine. He sank right in, you cannot imagine or I describe the condition in that shelter.

Voices called and we emerged stiff, tired, hungry and wet. One from the other trench had tried to cross to the main building for water but was shot and a medic who went to his rescue also got shot and killed.

We had the rest of the day and night to recover, clean up and make a meal. Outside we discovered a huge tank and Russkies with tommy guns giving the impression we were now their prisoners until a newcomer came straight up to me and, producing a bottle of something, indicated he wanted something to pour into, and so I rounded up two mugs and then, with a liberal measure in each, raised his and shouted “Stalin - Roosevelt -Churchill!” I tasted mine and began "Churchill -" “Niet!” he shouted and at the same time planted a pistol on the end of my nose so, forgive me, I did it his way.

Our attention was drawn to the departure of the tank and the arrival of a lorry from which a large mortar was brought into the compound and set up. There was no more small arms firing to be heard and we assumed it was a demonstration of defence for the hospital but no, they started firing at some target beyond our view so we helped bring boxes of ammo up from the lorry and it was not long before the Germans began firing a mortar back. Not having the benefit of an interpreter we were unaware that handcarts had been rounded up and the bed patients were being loaded on to them.

It transpired that the hospital had been told the Germans were preparing to counter attack so everyone had to be moved out to safety. Our situation had already worsened as the German shells began coming in closer until one blew us off our feet in a shower of snow, grit and shrapnel whilst the Russkies cheerfully dismantled their mortar, re-loaded their gear and were away leaving us to recover. There was no option for us then but to join the party assembled out on the road and help push the carts. Realising that we had forgotten the sledge and precious belongings I went back to discover a shell had landed on the hut we had left the sledge in. It was no more than scattered debris and so now we only had what we stood in which fortunately included the valises on our backs carrying immediate needs.

We pushed on for three days, stopping overnight in empty properties with only warm drinks made of melted snow to sustain us. Three bed patients died along the way from exposure. Arriving in a small town called Rosenberg everyone was checked into a building from a list, leaving us three on the pavement but we did not have to wait long before three more were brought out together with a Russkie officer, a doctor and a Serb medic who was acting as interpreter. It was explained that there were not enough supplies to cater for all, "You must go home but stay on the roads or be shot!"

For the first time I took a serious look at my two companions. One, a little over six foot was named Brassington and in the Service Corps and a conscript whilst the other was no more than five foot eight, round shoulders, also a conscript from a Highland Regiment, he had been a farm labourer in Aberdeenshire and his Scottish brogue was so broad it was difficult to understand what he said. I never discovered his name so 'Jock' had to do.
The other became 'Brassie', I ‘Lofty’, although a good inch shorter, but being a regular and a corporal, although I was at least two years younger they tended to accept me as leader. The other three also excluded consisted of a British
padre Capt King and two medics. The doors closed and we were left sheltering from a freezing wind and driving snow in the porch way and stayed there all night sheltering as best we could.

The long trek from Marienburg had been so slow that we could not have covered any great distance and so with Danzig and he sea behind us it seemed reasonable to strike inland for some form of civilisation that might cater for us. We trudged along with our thoughts for company and found shelter when night drew in. We got a fire going and removed our top clothes and boots, and thoroughly exhausted, we slept.

We had made a mistake in taking off our boots - we simply could not get them on again which, after a while resulted in us sludging along with the boots undone for over an hour before they could be laced up again.

The scene we passed through was unspectacular, simply snowbound fields marked by hedgerows, an occasional tree and scattered cottages of farm workers but I did see a huge stork’s nest on a chimney top and the bird take off. We came to a fork in the road and the Captain suggested we split into our separate threes as it would be better foraging for sustenance. It made sense so he took his two medics to the left whilst we took to the right after handshakes and good hunting.

The days were short so although we never stopped walking we never covered more than twelve kilometres a day. Each night we found an empty cottage, and always something to light a fire and then we’d search outside for potatoes or a chicken roosting. Only twice did we catch a chicken but had better luck with the potatoes, enough to keep us going. The standard of living there was very low, the floors earth and few with either an upstairs or a basement. We were lucky to have a good supply of matches and cigarettes used very sparingly, and melted enough snow to at least wash our hands and faces and made a point of shaving too to impress the Russian patrols, when we would pre-empt their surprise by yelling "Ingliski - Soyusniki". They were cheerful but trigger happy, taking potshots at chimneys etc. We never saw them eating and wondered how they managed until we occasionally saw an American 'K' ration packet or empty Spam tin.

After about a week we came upon action. There was a huge mountain of supplies in a field and lorries were queuing up to unload and empty ones taking off again. We were disregarded and so indicated a lift to an empty lorry driver and he happily pointed to the back and we climbed aboard whilst he set off as though the Devil was after him. We had no idea where we were being taken but only half a kilometre along we came to a defunct tank leaving only room for one to pass but another loaded lorry coming the other way thought he was more important and so the two lorries ground together head on with much argument but then they started shooting at each other so we slid off the back and round the other side of the tank and on our weary way.

The next day we began to see bodies in the fields either side. They were civilians, their clothes had not been disturbed but all the footwear had been taken and all mouths were open as though in search of gold teeth. They had left the road and been shot. Further on we could see a group of civilians sitting on the ground at a junction. We thought we might get some information and coming close I spoke to an old man holding his pipe in his hand, elbow rested on his knee but as we got close we found they too were all dead, frozen where they sat waiting for instructions perhaps that never came.

It was shocking enough but as we moved on further a column was approaching, tanks, lorries and endless marching troops almost taking up the width of the road. We could not step aside as that would take us off the road and the certainty of being shot, but neither could we stand aside and wait without freezing to death. So God forgive us, we had to keep moving through the remains of civilians, old men, women and children, who had perhaps been slave workers deserted by the retreating Germans seeking to make their way to the Baltic countries they had been taken from, so the road was a mush of snow, sludge, shattered possessions and shattered bodies that the tank tracks sprayed over in passing. We made no comment as we progressed but I am sure Brassie and Jock also prayed, whether they had a religion or not. The column took two or three hours in passing and the road became relatively clear again and then we did stop - to be sick.

Another day, always being directed East by the military police at junctions with a cheerful thumb jerked with the one word — “Moscow!” As far as the Russians were concerned, everything came from Moscow or went there but we knew we could not last such a distance, forever hoping for some Mecca round the next corner.

We were not out of trouble though for later the next day we were astonished to hear heavy artillery firing and quite close too. Jesus wept! Had we been waking for almost three weeks in a circle? We were further frightened out of our miserable lives when, as darkness crept in, Stalin’s Organs opened up with a racket screaming over our heads like Banshees. Unaware of the mass of new war weapons, we were truly scared out of our wits as we threw ourselves flat on the ground with the realisation that we were, at that moment in no man’s land.

The noise abated and we found shelter but did not get very far for at the next junction there was quite a lot of activity and we were turned South. It was not until after the war that I discovered that we had almost reached Russia (then Lithuania) about the first week in February. For what it was worth we were still alive, we could bank on shelter at night and as long as we still had matches could melt snow and make a drink. For food, we were still dependent on finding potatoes and were certainly grateful we were no longer heading East. So we kept going, saying very little and eventually came to Deutsch-Eylau where I had worked for three years. Some buildings were on fire and there was a lot of small arms firing but, believe me, we were too weary to care so keeping to the shadows I led the way to a hotel in the centre. It was badly damaged but found a room on the ground floor at the rear and stayed put until we heard shouting and the lowing of cattle. Peering out I saw the spectacle of a herd of cows being driven along the High Street. Next to our room was a small courtyard where supplies were brought in and there was a wicket door in the gates so with one accord without discussion, as the animals passed we steered one into the courtyard and closed the wicket door.

(Continues in the Thousand Kilometre Walk Part Two)

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