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Prisoner of the Germans - 5 - The March and Release

by HaroldWood

Contributed by 
HaroldWood
People in story: 
Robert Bennett Warren
Location of story: 
Poland & Germany
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3592424
Contributed on: 
29 January 2005

The March

January 21st: So we started the ‘march’. It has been described in the media as a ‘death march’. It is true some did die, but the expression ‘death march’ is a bit of an exaggeration. Occasionally we would wake up and find someone had died in the night.

At one stage there were three parallel columns proceeding westward. We P.O.Ws, the German Army, and German civilian refugees travelling in farm carts with as many of their possessions as they could take with them.

The first night was spent in a Russian P.O.W. camp, and we stayed here the next day. It was a very moving experience; the Russians could not do too much for us, though they had so little themselves. Russian prisoners were treated abominably by the Germans, and they did not have the protection of the Red Cross, or Red Cross food parcels; Russia was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention. We ourselves saw how the Germans rounded them up; they sent in German Shepherd dogs! I think it was this night that I slept on a narrow bench without falling off!

January 22nd: Some French P.O.Ws offered us cigarettes.

January 24th: A Russian gave me a cap! That night we slept in a barn and this was to be our general procedure throughout the ‘march’ (though we were straggly it could hardly be called a ‘march’!). I was able to practice my French with the French P.O.Ws who were also in the column.

January 27th: We slept at another Russian work camp.

I now started keeping a record of the distance walked and I was helped in this by means of a map of Germany. How I obtained the map I cannot remember but I am now surprised at my temerity. A map for a P.O.W. was of course ‘contraband’ to the Germans and I could have been in real trouble if I had been found with it. (This map is another of the souvenirs still in my possession).

On average we walked about 15 miles a day, but one day it was 23 miles, and this on starvation rations. In all we covered about 500 miles between January 21st and March 21st.

January 28th: We passed a column of RAF officers and they gave us a lot of cigarettes, and then joined up with another Arbeits-Kommando at Freiwaldare.

January 30th: Both parties left and arrived at a camp outside Sagan. The Germans made us wait during the night an intolerable time in the cold while they allegedly arranged accommodation for us. We learnt that the temperature was
-18°C the other day. The accommodation proved excellent, but the food was still starvation rations.

February 2nd: I had an interesting conversation with a Slovak with a fair command of English in this camp; he had been a teacher. He took my address but of course I never heard from him again.

February 4th: Celebrated my birthday with a bread ration of 14 to a loaf!

February 11th: We were marched to the airman’s camp and then we were off again. To our anger we saw German soldiers looting the store of Red Cross parcels. We noted that the town of Sagan was being evacuated and that soldiers were taking up positions.

February 12th: We had to march 20 miles last night and then settled in a barn. My diary records ‘some grand sights’. What these were I do not know now but my guess is that they were waves of Allied bombers.

February 13th: Marched 15 miles to Muskau and then stopped the night in a factory.

February 14th: We were compelled to sleep out in the open with rain pouring down! At least it was a milder spell. A bomb was dropped near us.

February 19th: To my delight I discovered my old mate of Sagan days, Sam, in the column.

February 20th: The River Elbe was crossed at Riesa, and then we spent the night in some barracks.

February 26th: We passed the outskirts of Leipzig. I have a strong memory of passing through a large town which was just a mass of rubble because of Allied bombing; it was probably Leipzig.

February 27th: The Germans gave us a rest day and then on 28th a new company of guards took over.

March 4th: Another rest day. Miracle — we were given some soup and potatoes.

Our normal ration had been a chunk of bread once a day, and ‘coffee’, and even the bread was omitted occasionally. (I still have in my possession a sample of the daily bread ration, set hard as stone. It was cut off a loaf after we had been released and were getting better rations).

March 6th: The owner of the farm where we spent the night, the local Burgermeister, was very good to us. We got some gravy, a good skilly, and coffee with milk from his own cows night and morning. The milk was contaminated with the taste of molasses which had been fed to the cows, but beggars cannot be choosers. We learnt he had a son who was a P.O.W. in England.

March 7th: Very bad quarters in a brick factory with no straw to sleep on. The place was filthy but at least we were sheltered from the rain. The French prisoners slept upstairs and we on the ground floor. One of our column was foolish enough to sneak upstairs to try to rob the French. We heard loud screams but whether he was lynched or not we never found out, and we were not disposed to mount a rescue operation.

March 9th: I reported sick with a septic heel, as I was having difficulty in keeping up. The new boots I had received from the Red Cross on December 11th had worn right through the heel. That evening the 27 in the sick party proceeded at heir own pace and not with the main column. We were given a good billet and were provided with tea with milk, two lots of potatoes and two loaves between the 27. We are now near the Herz mountains

March 10th: We covered about 16 miles today, but I had a lift in a horse-drawn wagon most of the way.

March 11th: My heel was given a dressing at a first-aid station, and I had a good dinner! Jack Warner, one of the sick party died today. We were put on a train to catch up the main column, and then billeted in a cottage.

March 12th: A rest day. We stayed in another good farm and were given soup and potatoes midday, and soup again at night.

March 13th: We, the sick party, proceeded by walks and lifts to Manenberg. Received four slices of bread and meat paste, and coffee at midday.

March 14th: We were taken to a medical room in a barracks at Hildesheim for treatment and then returned to our barn,

March 15th: Another member of the sick party, Bartlett, has died. We were given some bread and jam, and a good soup in the evening. That evening a doctor came to visit us and I received another dressing.

March 16th: Another person has died. The cause of these deaths has not been recorded but most likely either Pneumonia or Dysentery. We were moved to a larger barn and given noodle soup. A Polish medical orderly paid us a visit.

March 17th: I was given an injection, but what for I do not know now.

March 18th: Unexpectedly we were given a slice of wheaten bread each; we had not seen white bread since we were taken prisoner. A party of twenty-one French sick joined us.

March 20th: Onward again after the six days break at Hildesheim, but we travelled in a wagon.

March 21st: The long ‘march’ finally came to an end today, and we were billeted at an empty school in Hannover. Obviously all the children had been evacuated.

On the ‘march’ we had been a long struggling column, far removed from a disciplined army, with guards at long intervals on either side. We got the impression they were struggling nearly as much as we were. When passing through forests there would have been ample opportunity to make a dash into the trees, and a few did so, intending to give themselves up to the advancing Russians. After the end of the war I met one such and he told me they were treated worse by the Russians than by the Germans!

The approximate route of the ‘march’

If we passed a clump of root crops a few would dash out to secure some to eat. The guards only made feeble attempts to stop them. I believe some of the cases of Dysentry were caused by eating dirty ‘roots’. In one barn in which we stopped the night, however, I found a bag of wheat and filled my pockets with it.
As I walked along I would eat one grain at a time, making it last as long as possible.
One feature of the ‘march’ was the night-mares. I had a regular one. Some-one would offer me a large dish piled up with cream dough-nuts. As I stretched out my hand to take one, they would disappear.

The RAF used to drop propaganda leaflets over Germany. Some time during the ‘march’ I picked one up as a souvenir.

The wording may be translated:

In the West
The west wall broken through
Over 1,000,000 prisoners
Since the invasion!
Anglo-American air offensive
From the Rhine to the Eastern Front

In the East
East Prussia, Wartheland
And Silesia overrun!
The “Ruhr of the east” lost!
Red Army deep in
Brandenburg, Saxony and Pomerania!

(Wartheland is a province of east Germany)

On the ‘March’ we had a lot of snow and frost with short mild spells in between.

Hannover

March 22nd: Today the rations were four to a small loaf and a sausage. There was a good ladle of soup midday, and straw arrived in the evening.

March 25th: There was a fire raid on Hannover and houses were burning all round. Some of our party volunteered to help save people’s furniture, but their real object was to loot.

March 26th — 29th: For rations we received the usual rye bread, potatoes and soup. There was actually sugar with the coffee.

April 1st: A pea and carrot skilly for a change, with potatoes.

April 2nd: A Polish work camp gave us a third of a loaf each with margarine and jam. In addition one cigarette each, and some soup.

April 3rd: More international generosity, some French prisoners gave us one American food parcel per ten men.

April 5th: We were de-loused. Bread and cheese in the rations.

April 6th: A big ration of meat today! There were rumours of the nearness of Allied troops, the landing of paratroops and a general emptying of the shops.

April 7th: Alarms and rumours all day; a threatened move did not take place. A little Red Cross food-stuff came in and an issue of flour.

April 8th: The sick party, including myself, was moved to a P.O.W. hospital, but the remainder of our column was marched away. I learnt, however, that many of them managed to be left behind.

April 9th: We were moved to a French work camp and were joined by two newly captured parachutist. There was much artillery fire in the area. The French gave us a good reception and we were given potatoes, and one American parcel between six. That day we discovered the guards had disappeared.

Release

April 10th: Free at last! Some of us went out exploring and met a troop of American tanks guarding a cross-roads. They said they would report our existence to the necessary authorities. The Americans provided us with some eggs, presumably looted, otherwise they had no rations they could give us. We noted that the French prisoners were raiding wine stores! Someone gave us a lift back in a car.

April 11th: We received medical treatment from an American, and a hair cut. We were still given German bread but a greatly improved ration of only three men to a loaf. This meant I was able to cut off a sample of what we had existed on on the ‘march’. As I have already said I still have this specimen in my possession.

I went for another stroll in the evening. On one of these walks I picked up a red Nazi arm-band with a black swastika on it. No doubt with the arrival of the Allied armies, Nazi officials were discarding their arm-bands as quickly as possible. This is another souvenir in my possession.

The French brought back some German prisoners to do our chores for us.

April 12th: Nineteen more who had been in the school joined us. Today we had a visit from a British Liaison officer and we were issued with bread, bacon and butter. He could not promise a quick evacuation.

April 13th: A big issue of rations today, mainly obtained from the Germans; bread, butter, cheese, sugar, tomato ketchup!, treacle, flour, soup powder, oats, egg powder, macaroni noodles, and beans. To our complete surprise there was also some Chinese tea, which we understood had been found in a Nazi official’s house.

Another ‘explore’ in the evening and I met some British troops. The French supplied us with half a pig!

April 14th: We now have a radio in operation. Today there was a minute’s silence in memory of Roosevelt who had just died. We are just spending our time waiting!, washing clothes, sitting out-of-doors, reading etc.

April 21st: On the move at last. We were taken to Hildesheim aerodrome, where we were de-loused, and received coffee (my diary does not say but presumably real coffee at last.) and dough-nuts from the American Red Cross. We are now getting army rations.

April 22nd: A lot left today but I was not included. I met with some of our ‘march’ column.

April 25th: Away at last by American transport plane, and arrived at an airfield near Brussels. On the truck journey from the airfield to Brussels I could not help noticing a village with the sign-board ‘Waterloo’. We had a great welcome along the road and a good reception from the Church Army, the R.A.F. and Belgian civilians. After being registered we were sent to a leave hostel.

April 26th: There was an early departure in a Curtiss transport plane and landed at an airfield near Aylesbury. We had to sit on the floor of the plane, but who cared? At the airfield we had a reception in a hanger and were then sent to a camp.

April 27th: We went through various procedures, the details of which I have largely forgotten. I can remember we were debriefed by an officer who seemed mainly concerned if we had any atrocities to report. No doubt we had good baths, were re-clothed and given travel warrants. At 3.30pm I got away on 6 weeks compassionate leave with a parting gift from the Red Cross, and arrived home at 7pm.

What a home coming! Obviously we were not much good to the army in our present physical condition.

May 7th: Total surrender of Germany announced.

Laurie who had suffered far more on the ‘march’ than I had was admitted to hospital as soon as he arrived in this country, but he too reached home on May 25th.

Back home in Harold Wood I discovered there was a camp of German prisoners on our doorstep. Some of them used to come to St. Peter’s Church, and the Rev’d Bernard Hartley got me to give them a mini-sermon in their own language. You should have seen their faces light up! Dorothy remembers I referred to Martin Luther.

The end

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