- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Bert Ruffle
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- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 January 2006
Extracts from my diary, written January 1945.
What a day! Wagons of every description have been passing through, and the rumours are that the Russians are on the outskirts of Breslau (Wrocław), about twenty miles away. A lot of refugees are passing by and, as we watch, we are told that they have been marching for two or three weeks. We were told that we should get ready to move off at a moments notice.
We had no sleep as the refugees poured into the factory yard. They were sleeping in the brick ovens for warmth. At about 2.30 am, a terrific explosion shook the building. This was followed by the roar of an aeroplane and then there was another loud bang. It was our first air raid, and last one on Bauerwitz (Baborow).
Our German guard was like was like a bear with a sore head. He was shouting at us blokes to hurry up and clean our rooms and get ready for work. We told him in no uncertain manner that the idea of going to work was stupid. The Russians would be here before long, and we would be freed by them. At 8 o'clock he made us go to work but I did not do much work you can rest assured. At 11 o'clock the guard was dashing around like a man in a frenzy. The order to move had been received and we had to move out. We all gathered together and the guard took us to our billets. Then the guard told us that, as the Russians were advancing towards us, we had to join the columns of refugees that were heading towards Bauerwitz.
We collected what kit we had and the remainder of the Red Cross parcels were shared out amongst us. Little did I realise that after three and a half years of working together, that this was the end of Stalag E398. There were eighteen of us in the party; Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and British. After that I would not see them again. We assembled in the yard and the guard checked us over and made sure that none had gone astray. Then we got the order to move off and meet in the square of the village of Bauerwitz where we were to meet up with prisoners from other Stalags.
The weather was beautiful; the sun was shining, the sky was a lovely blue, and there was not a cloud in sight. The snow covering the trees and fields made it look like a Christmas card. The fields looked like fields of diamonds, glistening and sparkling. Little did we know of the horrors that lay ahead.
When we arrived in the village square, we were lined up and, as usual, we waited ... for what? After about two hours, the first of the refugees came past us. They were mostly Russians, and what state they were in! We did not find out how long they had been on the march as they did not stop. After about half an hour, the column halted. Directly in front of us was a small group of Italians. When I had a close look at them, I really felt sorry for them. There were a about twenty of them but one in particular stood out. He was about six feet four inches tall and he was a walking skeleton. He had a raw spud in his hands. I looked at his feet and saw he was wearing a pair of wooden Dutch clogs, and round his feet were two dirty pieces of cloth; his ankles were blue with cold. He was wearing a pair of thin cotton pyjamas and around his shoulders he had a thin blanket. As he took a bite out of his raw spud, I could not help but notice low long his fingers were. There was no flesh on them and they looked like the talons of a vulture. His face was like a skull. The skin was gaunt and tight, there was not a scrap of flesh on his face, and his eyes were sunk deep into his eye sockets. There was not a single hair on head; he was as bald as a billiards ball. We could not talk to them, as it was forbidden by the German guards. They moved off and it would not be long before we too would be on the move.
It was not long before the first of the British prisoners passed me. When they saw us there was a lot of shouting and booing and general back-chat, asking us if we had our tents with us, as we would need them in due course of time. Then we were ordered to move. And so began the long march. We had been going for about a half hour, when buzz of excitement passed down the column. It seemed that the German guards who were in charge of the Russians were shooting them out of hand. That, we were going to find out.
As we walked on, the first dead Russian I saw was lying on his back with his hands in the air, looking as if he was trying to ward of the bullet that had hit him in the chest. He could not have been more than twenty years of age. Then there was another, and another. They were about twenty feet apart. There were dead Russians on the other side of the road. What would happen was a guard would snatch a prisoner's hat and then throw it away. The prisoner was told to fetch it and, as he left the column to retrieve it, he was shot. It was nothing for a guard to give a prisoner a push and then shoot him as he staggered. All told, there must have been about hundred Russians who would not see Russia again.
As we marched along the road, I noticed a track leading to a meadow. The track was about three hundred yards long, and it ended in a clump of trees. Amongst the trees was a group of Germans with a machine gun. Half-way down the track, trudging towards the trees, was the squad of Italian prisoners. I recognised them by what I called the walking skeleton, who was head and shoulders above the rest of his mates. I really felt sorry for them. I turned to my mate Lofty, and said "Lofty, it looks as if them Italians are about to meet their maker." "Yes Bert, the poor bastards, and we cannot do thing for them." As we carried on along the road, suddenly, from the meadow we heard shouts and screams. Then, in the clear, cold, frosty air came the rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat sound of a machine gun. Then all was silent. I said a silent prayer for them then I turned to Lofty and said, "Lofty, I don't know what lies ahead, but rest assured if they start anything like that with us, I'll make sure I will kill one of them before they take me." "I'll make sure of that myself, Bertie boy.", and we marched on. I did not see any more atrocities as the Russian column turned off to another route. Yet as the march continued, we heard that the shooting still took place in the Russian column.
We were on the move until about ten o'clock when we left the main column and finished up in a small farm at the little village of Sauerwitz (Zubrzyce) where we were put in barns for the night. There was plenty of clean straw for us to sleep in. It was the cleanest barn that we had on the whole of the march. But when we asked the guards when we were going to get any grub, they just laughed at us.
Now before we go any further I'd like to tell you of my pals and the way we stayed together until we arrived back in England. There was Bunny Humphries, Harold Shoesmith and me, Bert Ruffle, who all served in the Rifle Brigade and were taken prisoner at the battle of Calais. Then there was Frank Talbot of the Queen Victoria Rifles, and last but not forgotten, there was Terry Whitney of the Royal Navy who was taken prisoner at the battle of Dieppe where he received severe injuries in both legs. Around about six o'clock in the morning, we were rudely awoken by our friends the guards shouting "Raus, raus!" They proceeded to turf us out in the cold and told us that we would be moving off in an hours time. So, with a little bit of scrounging we got a small fire going and we proceeded to sort out what grub we had.
Sorting out the grub was a bit of a problem. We had one loaf of bread which was about ten inches long. Now, as the oldest soldier, I was more or less acknowledged as the leader of our little group. I suggested that, as we did not know when we would be getting any grub from Jerry, we should only eat half the loaf now and save the remainder for tomorrow. This did not go down well with our mate Harry who wanted to eat the lot in one go. According to him the Jerries would have to feed us. I asked "What did we get to eat yesterday?" "I'm bloody hungry" he said. "Think you're the only one, you prat? You can have two slices now if you like, but remember, you get none tomorrow. Is that OK with you lads?" They all agreed with me so we finished up with a bacon and powdered-egg butty. As we had a packet of tea and a tin of powdered milk, Bunny and Lofty went off to see if they could find any water for a brew. They returned with enough water to make a brew.
As we were round the little fire drinking our tea, Harry came up with a bright idea. "Is this all we are having for breakfast? What about having a tin of sausages? We can't eat them cold!" It was with real disgust in his voice that Frank replied "I think it will be better for all of us if we settle the matter of sharing the grub stakes here and now. We must have one of us to take charge of of what little food we have and to share it out and no bloody arguments. I think that Bunny, as our cook, will fill the position and what he says goes." This we all agreed. Just then our meeting was called to a halt by our friends the guards who told us fall in ready to move off.
We left Zietenbusch (Pietrowice), taking it in turns to pull our sled over the snow. It was not too bad marching along this road. Then it started to snow and, believe me, it turned very cold. We had not stopped for a rest and we were very tired, cold, and hungry. When we arrived at our rest camp, we were split up into groups and herded into a small building. It was only about forty feet by twenty feet and it was a fight to find a place to lie down, but we managed to keep together. The five of us were in the corner, away from the door, but there was a concrete floor and we were wet and very cold. We then had a bit of grub from our supply, but no drink. Afterwards, we lay down to sleep but it was too bloody cold! I don't think it was five minutes before the door was flung open and the guards came in shouting "Raus, raus! Alle Mann raus!" It was five o'clock and we were lined up and counted, not once, but at least four times. We waited in the freezing cold for about an hour, after which we were told to move off. The guards were asked several times about when we would get some grub as we had not been given any for two days now. They told us we would get some a mile up the road.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Genevieve Tudor of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Mark Ruffle and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions
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