Stalag 357

Chapter 8 – Stalag 357 – Thorn and Fallenbostal.

On 19th July 1944, an order was issued by Hitler calling for the preparations to be made for moving of all Prisoners of War to the rear. This instruction prolonged the war for hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers and airmen, forcing them into misery, starvation and, in some cases, death.

On 20th July 1944, Hitler survived an assassination attempt and the control of the Allied prisoner of war camps was handed over to the SS commander, Himmler.

Meanwhile, at a remote station at the end of their journey, the prisoners were ordered out with stiff and aching limbs. A column was formed of the prisoners including Sergeant Fenton, flanked by guards, they were marched 4 miles in the gathering dusk, through a town called Thorn, where pretty Polish girls called out to them until the guards shooed them away with their rifles.

Stalag ‘Kopernikus’ at Thorn (now known as Toruń) in Poland, was about 180 miles northwest of Warsaw. The camp was situated about 1 ½ miles from Thorn railway station from which the prisoners were marched. Later this camp became known as Stalag XXA.

357 1

The prisoners then caught sight of their new camp. It was familiar sandy ground, surrounded by evergreens, monotonous barrack blocks, guard towers and barbed wire. To the West the camp was bounded by an artillery range and a secondary road which lead to Thorn and on the other side by the railway line between Bromberg and Danzig.

So it was on 19th July 1944 (although the ICRC records state 18th July) Ken arrived at Stalag 357 at Thorn in Poland, little did he know at that time this this was just a short stopping off point before he was required to proceed further West.

Stalag 357, Thorn, which was already inhabited by 7,000 British Army prisoners of war, now became home for the 3,000 or so Air Force NCO’s, who were accommodated in a separate compound to the Army prisoners. The army were initially not impressed with the arrival of the airmen and the overcrowding and half-rations it would mean. The huts in this separate compound had already been cleared for the new arrivals and they were again with their own people, safe behind barbed wire.

Constable

Earlier groups that marched out of Heydekrug suffered a different journey altogether before arriving at Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow. They had had a short journey by train to the coast, where they were loaded into a small coal ship at a small Baltic Sea side town of Memel. Packs were left on deck as they were forced into the hold down a steel ladder, cocked machine guns were lined on them at all times. 900 men were crammed into the hold, with no room to sit or lay down.

The ship set off in the early hours of 16th July 1944 but as the sun rose, temperatures became unbearable which they suffered for sixty hours since departing. They came into port at the mouth of the River Oder and discharged their cargo. Two prisoners were shot whilst trying to escape.

The prisoners were put on board a train for several hours journey. When it stopped, the doors opened and the Luftwaffe guards got out before the doors were shut again. The doors would not be opened again until the next day. They would then be chased up the hill to their camp surrounded by marine cadets, a naval version of the Hitler youth who stabbed at them with knives and set their dogs on them. The column was covered by machine guns and cameras waiting for the prisoners to break so that they could be filmed and shot. See ‘The Escape’ by John Nichol and Tony Rennell.

But the Russian advance continued into Poland and therefore Ken only stayed here at Thorn apparently for three weeks although the camp official history suggests this was more like 6 weeks before another train journey began, when according to Ken’s liberation questionnaire, on 8th August 1944 he was to leave Thorn, just over a week after the US forces made a break out from the Normandy beachhead on 31st July 1944.

At this time, the prisoners from Stalag XXA at Thorn joined tens of thousands of other prisoners of war slogging their way along the northern line of march from camps in the East, such as those unfortunate Stalag Luft VI POW’s who had been sent to Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow, amongst many others from far and distant camps across Poland and Germany. If they made it, the destination would be the same, the vast prisoner-of-war complex at Fallingbostal on the windswept north-German plains.

Some walked all the way, in pitiful conditions as they were rushed along the corridor of land beside the Baltic Sea, then crossed the first natural barrier they came to, the River Oder, and then plodded west until the next one, the River Elbe. The ‘lucky’ ones travelled at least some of the way by train.

Those leaving Thorn considered themselves the “lucky” ones as they were to travel by train, another hellish journey, the prisoners crammed into railway trucks for many days, the conditions unsanitary and inhumane. If they considered themselves lucky, then God help the others.

Stalag 357 was relocated near to the existing Stalag XIB camp on the Northern side of the village of Oerbke and about 1 ½ miles East-South-East of Fallingbostal. Hanover was about 33 miles South and Soltau about 10 miles North-North-East of the camp. Built on the site of Stalag XI-D by Italian POW’s captured after the fall of Italy, the surrounding countryside was flat heathland with many wooded areas that was used as a training ground for German Troops, especially tank and assault gun training. A large area with many barrack blocks housed the tank school which was situated immediately South East of the camp, meaning the Prisoners were constantly under the watchful eye of the German troops.

Water Meadows

With the expansion of the German Army in the mid 1930’s, twenty five villages between Fallingbostel and Bergen were cleared of their reluctant inhabitants to create a large troop training area (Truppenübungsplatz). The huts for the workers constructing the barrack complexes were used as the basis of Stalag XI B and Stalag 357.

The first POW’s to arrive were Polish from the 1939 invasion of that country, however, as the German army moved west, a staggering 40,000 POW’s were registered in one or other of the Fallingbostel camps, many in outlaying Arbeitskommando or work camps. In 1941, as the Germans advanced into Russia, over 12,000 Russian POW’s arrived in Fallingbostel but there were no facilities and they were left to fend for themselves. Conditions were so bad that after only 12 months over half of the POW’s had died. As Germany’s conquests increased the numbers in the camp continued to climb and by mid-1944, there were over 96,000 registered POW’s from over a dozen countries in the camps.

Today, Oerbke is currently the location of the British 7th Armoured Brigade and includes a large training area.

Stalag 357 was part of a large complex of camps based around the German barracks on the outskirts of Fallingbostel. The word “Standort” indicates the location of today’s memorial.

Fallingbostel 2

The main entrance of Stalag XIB.

With the expansion of the German Army in the mid 1930’s, twenty five villages between Fallingbostel and Bergen were cleared of their reluctant inhabitants to create a large troop training area (Truppenübungsplatz). The huts for the workers constructing the barrack complexes were used as the basis of Stalag XI B and Stalag 357.

The first POW’s to arrive were Polish from the 1939 invasion of that country, however, as the German army moved west, a staggering 40,000 POW’s were registered in one or other of the Fallingbostel camps, many in outlaying Arbeitskommando or work camps. In 1941, as the Germans advanced into Russia, over 12,000 Russian POW’s arrived in Fallingbostel but there were no facilities and they were left to fend for themselves. Conditions were so bad that after only 12 months over half of the POW’s had died. As Germany’s conquests increased the numbers in the camp continued to climb and by mid-1944, there were over 96,000 registered POW’s from over a dozen countries in the camps.

Today, Oerbke is currently the location of the British 7th Armoured Brigade and includes a large training area.

Stalag 357 was part of a large complex of camps based around the German barracks on the outskirts of Fallingbostel. The word “Standort” indicates the location of today’s memorial..

Fallingbostal 1

The countryside around Fallingbostal was much more recognisable to the prisoners, distinctly more northwest European, with heathland rather than flatland, lived-in rather than desolate and empty; much more like the landscape back home and it made the prisoners think about home any their impending freedom much more.

Water Meadows

A picture of the Cuttings at Drax, drawn from memory by Ken Fenton whilst a POW.

On arrival, the majority of Air Force Personnel were accommodated in “A” compound, although both the Air Force and Army personnel where much more intermingled than before.

At Fallingbostal, there were in fact two separate camps, sprawling across hundreds of acres. They housed Poles, French, Russians and Italians over the years and at one stage conditions had been so bad that 6,000 Russian prisoners had died of typhus. The bigger camp – Stalag XIB – now held close to 10,000 prisoners of many nationalities. The second camp had been closed for a year and a half but had been reopened for the 8,000 newcomers from Thorn, who brought its own designation of Stalag 357 with them. Here, spirits quickly sagged.

The majority of the Air Force POW’s were  accommodation consisted of wooden barracks which were in a bad condition with leaking roofs, broken windows and doors and insufficient lighting and heating, which, added to the fact that overcrowding, meant that there were about 60 men to each barrack room, lead to unacceptable conditions. As additional parties of prisoners arrived at the camp as the Germans pushed their captives further and further West in front of the Russian advance, the conditions and overcrowding got worse and worse. When in February 1945 a party of American POW’s arrived there was no room at all and they had to be accommodated in tents erected on the sports field, meaning real hardship for these men.

The final number of detainees that Fallingbostal held just before it was evacuated reached about 12,000 Air Force and Army personnel.

Ken and the others from Thorn had been at Fallingbostal for many months before the majority of the others arrived, but it was far from a picnic. Ken would have been one of the early arrivals at Fallingbostal who sat in the already overcrowded compound and listened to the harrowing stories of those still arriving there as numbers increased day by day during the spring of 1945.

Ken shared his hut with John Bristow, the ‘Canary’, and a number of other Yorkshiremen as noted in the “Yorkshire Post, Kriegie Edition”, including L N Chappell, George Spenceley and G Tipping. Other Yorkshiremen listed as friends are Gordon Bottomley and Joe Walker, together with Jimmy (Dixie) Deans and John Fancy. Many have already been mentioned in this story.

The prisoners despaired, their hopes laid low by the absence of letters from home, their spiritual lifeline, as communications throughout Germany collapsed.

The present was grim and the future uncertain. It must have been tempting to lose hope and relapse into apathy. There were needless deaths of men who could not be bothered to fight back so that comparatively trivial ailments developed into things far worse. The piper playing ‘Flowers of the Forest’ as he led a funeral cortege was no longer a rarity.

Typically, a prisoner here lost a great amount of weight during their months here.

In the next-door compound, the Russians were routinely whipped by the Germans and this became acceptable by both the German’s and Russian’s. The Russian’s expected no mercy – and could be guaranteed to show none when their turn came to be the masters. The RAF POW’s reported afterwards witnessing cannibalism amongst the starving Russians, through desperation, they stooped that low.

Unusually now, the camp was run and guarded by Landeschutze (German Auxiliary Army) with only a small number of redundant Luftwaffe personnel now to look after them and one Luftwaffe Huptmann. The new regime made the POW’s nervous.

At Thorn and early in the period whilst the POW’s were at Fallingbostal, both WO’s Deans and Mogg continued with their duties in the administration of the Air Force POW’s but the Army, overall under the control of RSM Turner as camp leader and various Army NCO’s, did not have the same level of discipline or respect and therefore the running of the camp as a whole suffered, culminating in January 1945 in a meeting of all the representatives when it was decided to elect one Man of Confidence for the whole camp. Three nominations were made in RSM’s Turner and Lyons and WO Deans, the latter being unanimously elected, with the most senior NCO being responsible for discipline, that being RSM Lockby.

Deans had taken over the leadership of the British contingent in the camp, which given, the usual inter-service rivalry was extraordinary in itself, especially considering the large army contingent which voted for the RAF man. They knew that Dean’s would fight for their survival above anything else. He was not concerned about rank; and could converse as much with a Cockney sergeant as he would be with a German General. The Geneva Convention was his bible and he knew it back to front and insisted upon its observance all, as far as possible.

Deans reorganised the camp along the lines that he was used to and put WO Alfie G Fripp in charge of the Red Cross parcel’s as this was causing the most distress to the POW’s. This reorganisation was maintained even into and during the march North, but in the meantime he recognised the prisoners were bored and depressed and he ensured that no one caused unnecessary trouble by confronting the Germans, particularly the Gestapo.

Rain sapped their souls where forty-one days out of fifty, the heavens opened up and they lived in rain curtained and mud carpeted solitude. Their clothes were never quite dry, their boots were always a little damp. Trails of running green slime coursed down the walls inside the rooms, the water condensing on the ceilings or leaking through, splattering the bunks. To add to this, bladders could not always be controlled, so shamefully and embarrassed, the POW’s secretly slept on wet beds. It became the survival of the fittest but they also became less understanding of others.

Paris is liberated, 25th August 1944, this news being relayed to the prisoners courtesy of the camp radio. The Germans in many areas are in full retreat encouraging the allies to consider bigger and bolder moves to bring the war to a quick end. In order to try to stem this retreat, on 10th September 1944 Himmler orders the families of all German deserters to be executed and on 27th September 1944, beleaguered British Forces surrounded at Arnham are forced to surrender – only 2,400 men of the original force of 10,000 escaped. Hopes fade of an early end to the war as they witness the arrival of a large number of captured paratroopers arriving at the camp.

There was one other unforgettable personality among the POW’s at Fallingbostal, who had arrived as a result of the operations at Arnhem in September 1944 when the weary red-berets of the British paratroopers were marched into the camp as evidence that the war was not over, 400 British paratroopers captured at Arnhem They were led in, tired, hobbling and wounded, by the incomparable Regimental Sergeant Major John Lord as if they were parading for the King at Pirbright. This had an incredible effect on the Germans. The prisoners at Fallingbostal lined the fence to watch the paras enter the neighbouring Stalag XIB.

We did not cheer. We came instinctively to attention and John Lord noticing out two medical officers standing with us gave his party ‘eyes right’ and snapped them a salute which would not have been out of place at Pirbright. The impression it made on the German’s was incredible.”

RSM John Lord took the conditions and discipline in Stalag XIB as a personal challenge and set out to change the state of the camp. He insisted that his men should wash and shave daily as if they were in barracks and that they should salute German officers. He also demanded his men take some form of daily exercise.

RSM Lord

RSM John Lord at Stalag XIB

Confirmation is received from Schweizerische Gesandtchaft in Deutschland in their letter dated 7th September 1944 to the British Man of Confidence at Stalag 357 that Sgt. Ken Fenton has received promotion to Warrant Officer on the 2nd May 1943. This from the position of Sergeant, so it is likely that he held the position of Flight Sergeant for one day, an increase in wages of £1 per day, less of course income tax. The prisoners were paid whilst they were in POW camps and an allocated person was able to draw on these wages to pay bills. Anyone killed, in either service would have their income stopped immediately.

This was quite normal within the prisoner of war fraternity and frequently this would mean movement to an officer’s camp. Many transfers were made from Thorn and Fallingbostal back to Sagan for these reasons. Some never made as the war moved on and overtook their intentions and were either returned to their previous camps or the nearest camp that could take them.

It should be noted, however, that back in the UK between the years 1941 and 42, once an NCO received his wings as a Sergeant, without the presence of adverse comment, he could expect a promotion to Flight Sergeant within 6 months to a year and on to a W/O, 6 months to a year thereafter. The same policy affected commissioned aircrew and their promotions but in both cases, as the war drew on, the time period was dramatically reduced by half in 1943. Commissioning from the ranks enabled the RAF man a change of number, considered to be like being reborn into the upper class and also a change of camp in the case of POW’s.

The promotion of prisoner’s was much longer than this and it took Ken, together with his fellow Sergeants, twice the time to gain the commission that they arguably deserved, not being close enough to the promoting Officers and not being able to push or apply for new posts was certainly an issue.

On 5th October 1944, all hospitals in Germany are put under military control and sixteen-year-olds are called up for military service, no exceptions.

Food continued to be in short supply, as it was for the German soldiers and civilians alike, with the usual distribution of dry rations, soup and ersatz coffee being supplied by the Germans but potatoes now became scarce. Red Cross food parcels still arrived but at much more irregular intervals as you would expect with allied bombing disrupting the transport system throughout Germany but they were still getting through slowly but now a parcel had to be shared by two POW’s each week.

The following is taken from Nichol and Rennell, The Last Escape:-

“It was a miserable place. The grey-brick huts were long and low and partially underground so that when you looked out of the windows the ground was only just below you. The winter was severe and we had so little food that we typically lost four stone in weight and four inches off the waistline.”

They lived on swede peel, and even then they had to scramble on the floor and fight one another for it. This must have been horribly degrading. They scavenged for scrapes like animals outside the German cookhouse where huge vats of thin soup were boiled up. Everyone was desperate for anything that could be eaten that there was a properly drawn-up rota for the right to do so.

“We removed the suppurating potatoes and slimy swede peelings, cleaned them up marginally, boiled them and ate them. People who had been hungry will understand; those who haven’t won’t. Several men reported having eaten sparrows. Many had greedy eyes on a lean, one-eyed cat which occasionally appeared, negotiating the wire with supple ease, but, perhaps suspecting the intentions, refused to succumb to stretched fingers and soothing noises.” 

Later, during March 1945, with food supply dropping to dangerous levels, WO’s Deans and Fripp would be authorised by the German camp staff to travel to Lubeck under German escort in order to obtain a delivery of parcels from the stock being held there. Following this visit, on 30th March 1945, Good Friday, two railway wagons arrived full of 6,000 Red Cross food parcels were transported to the camp at a time when they were seriously needed, enough for half a parcel for everyone. This was a welcome supplement to the meagre rations that the prisoners had received so far. Later still, during the march North, twice Deans would return to Lubeck to secure further supplies to be delivered to various points along the route for the marching POW’s to pick-up as they passed.

Clothing supplies had also been severely restricted so the POW’s had to make do with what they could find or what they had, leading to a very ragtag array of uniforms, heavily mended and patched up. A good stock of clothing was maintained for escape purposes.

The Germans discipline and wish to maintain authority was at this point dwindling as the war started to really go against them and even the constant propaganda machine could not defray from the obvious truth all around them and searches became very irregular, with reliable advance warnings being given through the “Trading” organisation. The Gestapo and Criminal Police Officers however continued with their random searches but even these became less frequent and nothing was ever seen to be discovered.

Even the anti-escape measures and searches by the German Abwehr, the goons, became inefficient and not as thorough, spending their time looking for tools and checking passes at the camp gates and yet, the POW’s had received their orders to stay put and wait for the Army’s to make their way to them, but these orders were probably not necessary to most, who were now sufficiently weak and ill-nourished not to survive very long on their own. Many years of trying and not succeeding had had an effect on the majority of prisoners.

Like many of the camps that they had previously inhabited, the camp was surrounded by two barbed wire fences about 8 feet in height and 6 feet 6 inches apart, with more coiled barbed wire in between, lit by arc lamps at night, spaced 40 feet apart, from dusk until dawn, except during air-raids, which were frequent. Sentry towers with searchlights and machine guns were spaced frequently enough to see most of the barbed wire and provide a deathly cover of fire if they saw anyone trying to escape. During air-raids, especially but not just at night when the lights were turned off, the sentries between the towers were doubled and at those times, the POW’s were not allowed out of their barracks, at the risk of being shot, although that order was relaxed a little during daylight hours. The usual warning wire or fence was place 30 yards inside the main fence and the land in between was declared a kill zone. The normal use of buried microphones to detect tunneling was not witnessed as was the norm in other camps but that does not mean they were not there. All vehicles entering or leaving the camp were thoroughly searched and guards and dogs patrolled the compound from dusk till dawn and any escape attempts would be awarded the usual 14 to 21 days in the cooler – home from home to the seasoned Prisoner.

Digital StillCamera Digital StillCamera

The library had been left at Heydekrug as no facilities to transport it had been made available and those books that were brought along probably provided the only readily available source of toilet paper on their travels so the Barbed Wire University struggled although some classes continued, but with limited support. There was no theatre but a few bands travelled from barrack to barrack to provide entertainment.

The sports also suffered but were encouraged but suffered through the prisoner’s physical fitness through lack of food and the lack of equipment.

It was in that camp that Harry Bliss died on 30th March 1945, just six weeks before the enemy surrender on 7th May 1945, fewer than four weeks before repatriation of prisoners had begun.  He was 25. An air gunner with 218 Squadron, he was shot down on the 4th February 1943, developed acute appendicitis during the cramped train journey between Gross Tychow and Fallingbostal, locked up in the cramped cattle trucks, for which he received no real medical attention and after some treatment in hospital at Fallingbostal, he succumbed to this illness and died. It is reported that he had suffered injuries from rifle butts and that he had made several escape attempts during his time as a POW. He would have been with Ken at Stalag Luft 3 and 6, but was forced to take the route through Gross Tychow to Fallingbostal.

There were a few cases pf POW’s being fired upon by the guards for attempted escapes or for leaving their barracks at the wrong time, going to the toilet at night, etc., although no one was injured on these occasions. At Thorn, however, Technical Sergeant T A Stephens of the USAAC was shot and killed on 25th July 1944 whilst attempting an escape together with 6 other US airmen. They were intending to escape by cutting through the wire near the toilet block and whilst doing so Stephens was seen by one of the guards and challenged. Stephens stopped what he was doing and was talking to the guard outside the wire, lying on the ground as ordered, when a guard approached Stephens on the inside of the wire and shot him twice in the head at close quarters. Stephens had not moved and his companions were either still in the toilet block or had returned to their barracks. . .

Jumpy guards occasionally fired a round or two into the air to remind the prisoners as to who was in charge. In return, prisoners occasionally wrote down the name and number of guards who mistreated the prisoners for future reference or revenge, which usually brought them back to line, but at Fallingbostal there were few cases of POW’s being fired upon by the guards when they were carrying out their normal duties, The Guards were however still very jittery, not knowing who was watching them.

Dixie Deans had first heard the news of the D-Day landings on the ‘canary’ back at Heydekrug and it survived the journey to Thorn and Fallingbostal, across Germany hidden in a hand-made model of a racing car, which had been lovingly built to scale in every detail. It belonged to John Bristow. The model was so admired by the German guards that they frequently examined it, never realising what was hidden inside. At Fallingbostal, the signal was stronger and became even more important to the POW’s. Due to a mistake at Whitehall, the codes were changed without ensuring the POW’s were aware, which lead to some worry, and was only resolved when a new prisoner arrived with the new codes.

Radio’s appeared in most of the early camps with the necessary skill coming from trained radio operators using scrounged and stolen equipment to manufacture the sets and John Bristow had his first set in Stalag Luft 1.

It is thought that Ken Fenton was of assistance with the radio as l remember a very simple radio, as the one that was more likely used, being at Drax and more latterly moved to Surrey with Ken.

The prisoners also retained the equipment, stolen at Heydekrug, necessary to turn the radio from a receiver to a transmitter in case of emergencies but fortunately this was never needed.

The Red Army crosses the Danube on 29th November 1944 and General Patton’s Third Army crosses the River Saar on 5th December 1944. The Battle of the Bulge begins with a counter attack in the Ardennes on 16th December and the SS massacre 71 captured American POW’s at Malmedy on 17th December 1944, POW work camps around Konigsberg being evacuated on 24th December 1944.

On 12th January 1945, the Red Army launches its offensive on Poland with Warsaw falling on the 17th January 1945. Two days later on 19th January, POW’s at Stalag Luft VII, Bankau, are evacuated in blizzard conditions and Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf on 22nd January 1945.

One grey January afternoon, a mosquito fighter flew over the compound without any opposition. Was this the dove returning from the ark bearing clear signs of life not too far away? My Father had a clear memory of this event. Later one night a mosquito buzzed the compound and the prisoners laid low, praying the site would be recognized for what it was. In the bright moonlight, the pilot took his time to access the situation below and, choosing his target carefully, he dropped a bomb on the German quarters before shooting up a sentry box or two.

Overhead constant streams of Allied planes headed for Hamburg, Bremen and Hanover, their trails in the sky watched eagerly by the prisoners in the compound. The oil storage tanks were hit in Hanover and a brown curtain climbed the southern sky until it blotted out the whole of the heavens, leaving the camp dark for almost 2 days.

Conditions in the British camp were bad but soon became worse; in mid January reprisals against reported bad treatment of German POW’s held in British camps in North Africa meant that the British prisoners lost much of their furniture, tables, benches, chairs, their paillasses, including half the bed boards, and many of their blankets as well as any opportunity for recreation was forbidden. Many prisoners suffered from bronchitis and chilblains.

As the prisoners from Gross Tychow arrived they began to take stock of the situation, welcoming and greeting old friends but it was painfully obvious how much numbers were reduced from all those who had once been together at Stalag Luft IV.

The camaraderie of Heydekrug seemed a distant memory compared with the ruthless attitude they found in their new home. The atmosphere at Fallingbostal was hated. It lacked comradeship, fellowship, friendship and, most of all, sharing. The only means of survival was every man for himself.

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Stalag 357, Fallingbostal.

Compassion became a thing of the past, a young soldier, more a boy and certainly not a long standing prisoner, took a beating from other prisoners after being caught stealing food. They stood round him and clubbed him to the ground with their fists. He did not resist and no one tried to protect him. After the beating he was taken to the sick bay, a man running after him with his red beret.

Other acts of punishment continued. A thief from the RAF contingent was frogmarched to the cesspit and, fully clothed, thrust in and held down with a pole. When he had cleaned himself off and returned to his hut, he found his belongings had been thrown out and he was no longer welcome.

They were all desperately hungry, and these acts of self-survival could be understood. It was hard to know what was right or wrong.

The flesh on thighs and upper arms atrophied a little more each day, hipbones resembled incipient wings. Everyone dreaded an epidemic as much as they dreaded the idea of being marched again, this time Eastwards but equally, there remained a lethargy within the camp. They did, however, hang up a photograph of Monty with the word ‘wanted’ above it.

This attitude was dangerous as it made men weak and vulnerable just when they most needed their strength.

They waited and willed for liberation. Some became obsessive in their cleaning, scrubbing and dusting all the time, just to take their minds off things. Others adopted a an end-of-term air and went round getting their diaries signed by friends, collecting addresses, writing down anecdotes and homilies, prematurely anticipating the end.

Bloody Times (1)

Bloody Times (2)

While the tens of thousands of POW’s spread across Germany pondered an uncertain future, word about the marches was beginning to reach home, sketchy though it was. In Britain, those who knew their sons and husbands were held in camps in Poland and the far east of Germany had seen the news of the dramatic Russian military advances and had drawn the obvious conclusion: they were about to be released.

They pressed for information, and, in response to their requests, on 22nd January 1945 the War Office issued a press release approved by the Prime Minister himself. It was not very informative. ‘So far the War Office has received no information of the release of any British and Commonwealth prisoners-of-war by the advancing Red Army,’ it said. ‘An announcement will be made as soon as reliable information is available’.

But then it hinted at bad news, with the first indication that the prisoners might not, after all, have been left behind in their camps to be freed by the Soviets. ‘It is known that the German Authorities have been moving to the west prisoners of war and civilians from camps which are likely to be overrun. It should be appreciated that in the present conditions in Germany it must be some time before details of these transfers reach London.’ The hopes of Mother’s, Father’s and loved ones everywhere were dashed.

27th January 1945 as the Russians crossed the River Oder, some 40 miles from Sagan, and discovered Auschwitz, all the prisoners at Stalag Luft 3 were evacuated from the camp and force-marched, in the utmost atrocious freezing weather to Stromburg. Here, they were put into cattle trucks and taken to a town called Tormstat and held in an ex-Merchant Navy camp at Mevleg-Milag. They stayed there until April 1945 and were then again force-marched towards Lubeck. It is thought that the aim of the Germans was to get the prisoners onto a boat for Norway to set up a new POW camp. However, from Roger Daggett’s Liberation Questionnaie it would appear that the prisoners at SL 3 were liberated by the Allied Forces near the River Elbe in late April 1945.

The Red Army crossed the German border on 31st January 1945 with the Yalta agreement being signed on 4th February 1945.

6th February 1945, Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow is evacuated of its remaining prisoners at the start of an eighty-six-day march West in advance of the Russian Army.

9th February 1945 British and American troops sweep through Germany’s western defensive wall, the Siegfreid Line, desperate to take as much of Germany as they can and one day later, on 10th February, Stalag VIIIA at Gorlitz is evacuated.

23rd February 1945, US Army crosses the Ruhr on the Dutch border. The German’s desperate to get away from the invading Russians, on 28th February 1945, two million German troops and civilians flee the ‘Red terror’ through the Baltic port of Danzig.

7th March 1945, US troops cross the Rhine south of Cologne, as a result of which on 19th March 1945, Hitler issues the ‘Nero Order’ for the destruction of all industry, transport and agriculture likely to fall to the Allies and a few days later, on 24th March, Allied troops cross the Rhine in force on a wide front, forming a strong hold in Germany. The British and their Allies had crossed the Rhine in strength and the days that followed were pure expectation-so much so that the arrival of the Red Cross parcels on Good Friday seemed irrelevant in the excitement to be free. Sound of explosions could be heard nearby as the Germans blew up the bridges.

Also in March 1945, a further 3,000 RAF POW’s evacuated from Stalag Luft 4 arrived in Fallingbostel. They were divided between Stalags 357 & XIB.

3rd April 1945, Stalag XIIID at Nuremberg is evacuated.

Some camps closer to the Allied lines had apparently been liberated, but the persistent rumour was still that their release was not going to be easy.

Generally, the anxiety in the camp was heightened by an onslaught of German propaganda as blood-red posters appeared on walls in the camp stating that the Russians were the real enemy and that ‘England will find herself isolated against a Soviet Europe and a Soviet Asia from the Atlantic to the Pacific’.

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Friends 1

Peter Albert Balson, William Wrightson Hall and Albert John Tysowski.

Friends 2

Alan Andrew Fuller, William Henry Ernest Harwood, Robert Evans and Bob Martin.

Friends 3

Donald Arthur Boutle, Walter Kershaw, Gordon F Bottomley and Joe A Walker.

Friends 4

Norman John Smith, R Duffield, Leslie Newton Chappell, John S Woolston, Robert McDonald and Arthur Thomson.

Friends 5

D A MacLeod, J Jones, Miss Ernestine Stiemen and  Neil Mussen Campbell.

Friends 6

Harold Edmund Bennett,  Malcolm Gillies, W M Hard and E (Ted) G Caban.

Friends 7

Frederick Alwyn Hard, Edward G R (Roger) Daggett,  Irene Spring and Ann Hemmingway.

Friends 8

Edward Arthur Stanley (Stan) Parris, Edwar Bettison Torpey  and Henry Mahoney.

Friends 9

???? and G F Roughton.

Friends 10

Lionel Raymond Silver.

POW Money 1

POW Money, printed by the Germans and handed out work done or as ‘salaries’ for use within the camps, known as Lagergeld.

 

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