At three o’clock in the morning on a freezing winter’s night Ron Last stepped out into the snow. The 22-year-old RAF bomb aimer had spent a year in German captivity, after his plane had been shot down in the skies over Berlin. Last had languished for ten of these months in the Silesian PoW camp Stalag Luft III but now, on 28 January 1945, he was on the move. And he was not the only one.
As the Red Army’s inexorable advance threatened the eastern provinces of the Third Reich, it seemed that liberation was imminent for the hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen held prisoner there. The Nazis had other plans. Beginning in late December 1944, they began to evacuate their eastern camps and transport huge numbers of captives to the west. To what end they did this remains unclear. In their own defence some Germans claimed that the PoWs were being evacuated for their safety, shifting them far from the battle lines. Another theory is that the Nazis feared the prisoners would fight alongside the Soviets once they were freed. Or perhaps Hitler wanted to preserve the PoWs as bargaining chips in future negotiations with the Allies.
In any case the prisoners themselves had no idea where, or why, they were going and in most cases they would only reach their destination after three months had gone by.
With transport at a premium, the prisoners had to complete some, or in most cases, all of their journey by foot. Already weakened by war and captivity they now faced another challenge – the cold. The march began during the worst winter for a generation, when temperatures plunged to -25 degrees centigrade. Often wearing just the uniforms they were captured in, the prisoners were ill prepared for such harsh conditions. “It was blinding cold,” recalls Ron Last. “On the first night we were crowded into a barn on a moor and we cuddled up to each other just to keep warm.”
Aged just 20 when he began his march from Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf, machine gunner Doug Hawkins remembers the cold vividly. “The winters were terrible. We were walking in three feet of snow sometimes. If a chap dropped out because he was on his last legs the Germans left him out in the freezing cold and he would die that way or they would shoot him. And we took what they had: jackets, boots, anything to keep warm.”
The amount of food provided varied for each marching group but in very few cases was it anything like sufficient. The prisoners would have to take any opportunities that presented themselves to supplement their meagre rations. “You scrounged for what you could, when you could,” explains Hawkins. “If you saw a potato field being emptied you would rush to see if you could get any leftover potatoes. Once we saw a field being dealt with like this so we took what we thought were potatoes but it turned out to be sugar beet. It was terrible stuff and took hours to get out of your throat.”
Ken Hay MBE JP has abiding memories of the hunger he experienced as a 19-year-old prisoner, trudging through German-occupied Czechoslovakia. At one point he and his fellow marchers were so desperate for sustenance that they wolfed down two buckets of pig food that a young farm girl had put into some troughs. “When we’d finished, the poor girl was sitting on her backside crying her eyes out. Then of course, typically British, we all started feeling guilty so we sent a deputation to apologise to her. They came back and said that we hadn’t hurt her but that she was crying because she had never seen men so hungry.”
Hay remembers several occasions where local people gave up their food for the marchers, sometimes at great personal risk. “One Sunday we were walking through a village and we encountered a man with a bag. He suddenly opened this bag and threw it down and inside were several loaves of bread. Then he turned and ran towards some woods nearby. The German guards fired at him but they didn’t hit him.”
Lacking food, warmth and adequate shelter, the prisoners succumbed to all manner of diseases. Dysentery was rife. “I can always remember having to lower my trousers into a snow-covered ground and the icicles cut into my backside,” says Ron Last. “It was very uncomfortable.” Ken Hay also suffered from dysentery and had to endure days of marching after having “made a mess” of his trousers. “One time I made a grave mistake,” he remembers. “I didn’t want it clinging to me so I decided to put straw down there to keep the trousers off my skin. I didn’t allow for the fact that the straw was going to punch holes in me in all directions! It was horrible.”
Despite the privations of the march, few men sought to escape. For Ron Last it was never a realistic option. “The officers thought it was their duty to escape but how can you escape if you haven’t got local knowledge? If I had to escape in Germany one of the only words I would have known was kartoffel, which means potato. I wouldn’t have got 200 yards.”
Having undergone severe bombardment at Allied hands, some of the German civilians were extremely hostile to the Allied PoWs, as Doug Hawkins relates. “We went through one place one morning in Germany and they had put an extra 20 guards on for us. The RAF had been there two nights ago and bombed it and of course the locals weren’t very happy. They’d heard we were British troops and they wanted to attack us.”
In late April 1945, most of the marchers were liberated by Allied troops on the western fringes of the rapidly shrinking Reich. They were washed, fed and eventually flown back to Britain. Over the course of their march, some had covered 1,000 miles in desperate conditions and the ordeal had taken its toll. Ken Hay had lost five stone over the course of his imprisonment; Doug Hawkins weighed only six stone seven pounds. Figures are difficult to establish but it has been estimated that 3,000 PoWs may have died on the march, among them Hawkins’ pal George Stapleton. “He was in camp 344 with me and he got terrible dysentery on the march. He was one of the ones who never made it home.”
The death toll could have been much higher had it not been for the support the marchers gave to each other. On a particularly tiring day’s march Ken Hay’s exhaustion overcame him and he dropped out of line and lay down in the snow. “I simply gave up and I would have frozen during the night. At some stage two pals, the Canadian Jimmy Jarvie and Ted Harris of Essex, noticed I was missing and discovered I had dropped out. They moved back into the column until they found me, hoisted me up, one arm around each of the shoulders and on we went. Jimmy talked about strawberry shortcake and waffles with maple syrup and Ted talked about fish and chips until I recovered sufficiently to realise that I was being a burden and I ‘unhooked’ and trudged on. There is no doubt that those two chaps saved my life.”
Back in Britain, most marchers received a joyous homecoming and readjusted to civilian life. Yet the memories of their time on the road remained with them and still do today. “It will not go, you’ve got to live with it,” says Doug Hawkins. “People who haven’t been through it don’t understand. But I’ve found that if you talk about your experiences it does ease the thing off you a bit. You’ll never forget but it helps you to relieve it.”
Rob Attar is deputy editor of BBC History Magazine.
You can read testimonies from British PoWs at www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar