The March North.
A twenty-four hour guard was kept on the main gate of the camp to warn of the arrival of the SS. The possibility remained and the prisoners were fearful for the future. The prisoners watched a platoon of elderly Home guard soldiers take part in an exercise beyond the wire, crawling on their stoachs and hiding in the bushes to smoke. They did not look defeated or in despair. The prisoners worried what they may be instructed to do, but any question of escape was matched by the clear instructions from London received over the radio ‘Stay put’.
The concern was also about the possible arrival of SS troops and a 24 hour watch was put on the main gate to warn of any such situation. If this happened, then the prisoners would rush the gate. There would have been very limited success but maybe some would have survived.
Friday, 6th April 1945, the news came that they were to be marched out again, this time for the Northern Redoubt, the area of Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein in which the Germans planned their last stand.
6th April, Stalag XIb and 357 at Fallingbostal are evacuated. 8th April, First reports of POW marches appear in British press. It is believed that Ken left on 7th April.
There were promises of regular food supplies, but they feared, with good reason, that they would be reduced to living off the land.
The Army boys were to stay behind with the sick but the poor old RAF had got to march away again. In some ways they were glad to get out, with more chance of picking up odd bits of food on the road. Many were not in a suitable physical condition for the journey.
Worries continued about what could happen to them, prisoners were beginning to realise, a special camp known as Bergen-Belsen was just a few miles down the road from Fallingbostel.
As best they could they drew up contingency plans. Deans demanded that they would follow the German’s orders, because they had no choice – he had been warned that escapers would be shot. But they marched as slowly as they could. Even though the weather was mild, each man would wear his greatcoat, and they should carry spare socks, a container of water, and food. They would march in columns of about 1,000 and each group would have its own leader plus a head of security – in case the Jerries turned nasty.
Twenty senior men formed a headquarters unit with John Bristow and the radio, marching in the middle of the column to try and keep control of this great unarmed but bloody-minded army. Deans tried to control their destiny as much as possible, leaving only their destination to the Germans.
Some decided not to follow orders but to hide at Fallingbostal and wait to be liberated. Many hid in the Army camp as they were not being moved at that time, others found refuge with a group of American’s, not long off the difficult march from the East, and they lay hidden while their own compound led the march out. Those hiding with the American’s only gained a night’s respite. Having dispatched the British compound, the German’s came next morning for the American’s with the German’s surrounding the barracks and this time there was no hiding.
Some went to the only remaining hiding place, the compound that housed the Slavs, Indians and British Gurkhas in appalling conditions – much worse than the British and American prisoners were in. These prisoners along with others who hid elsewhere would be released earlier than the rest, although there was a moment when the SS arrived threatening to shoot all the prisoners. This was only stopped by the Luftwaffe guards, old men at that time.
Charles Squire, an occupant of Ken’s hut at Fallingbostal and a long time prisoner, reports in his liberation questionnaire that:-
“When the order was issued to evacuate 357. l hid away with the object of going when the German’s had left; this latter precaution was not necessary since some sick were left behind and whom l joined at the request of the S.B.M.O. and the camp was relieved.”
Sgt C H Squire, POW, was interned in camps Dulag Luft, SL1/SL3/SL6/S357 Thorn and Fallingbostal. He says under escape attempts that he “helped numerous tunnelling attempts none of which were successful. When the order was issued to evacuate 357 l hid away with the object of going when the Germans had left. This later precaution was not necessary since some sick were left behind and whom l joined at the request of the S.B.M.O. the camp was relieved. Flight magazine carried this among their POW notes on 19th June 1941. He was liberated by the 7th Armoured Division on 26th April 1945 and his liberation questionnaire is dated 22nd April 1945.
Many of the prisoners were sick and starving, the pounds had fallen off them, and at around 8 stone, and the average prisoner’s thoughts were on where they could be fed. Fallingbostal was not going to afford them that luxury. The prisoners dreamt of food, imagining what could be found. Whipped cream, chocolate, there were no bounds to their imagination.
These thoughts took their minds away from their deepest fears. They could sense the chaos around them as things went badly for the Germans. Would they kill them, out of retribution or anger? On one occasion, a company of SS troops arrived at the camp gats, and there was a fierce argument with the German guards who wanted to come into the compound and shoot the prisoners. The discussions went on for about 20 minutes but the guards stood their ground and the SS troops departed.
It is not clear whether Ken remained in the camp or whether he was marched out but his liberation questionnaire is dated 11th May 1945 and he states that he left Fallingbostal in April 1945. This appears quite normal for those on the march to put the date down as this day was not clear. In addition, Sgt Roberts who now lives in Wales has told me that he was with Ken at Gresse and this would be consistent with the date of liberation. Roberts informed me that both he and Ken helped with the burial of those killed at Gresse, which included one of the members of hut C2 5. John Arthur Gibbs, a Halifax crew member, was one of three survivors of the crew of 7, when their aircraft was lost on 23rd April 1944 only to loose his life in this unfortunate incident.
He was clearly of ill health through malnutrition and TB but again this would have been quite normal and very similar to everyone else.
For human nature, hope remains alone, of all the deities; truth and honour dead; and all the graces too, my friends are fled, the scanty specimens of living worth, dwindled to nothing, and extinct on earth, yet whilst l live and view the light of heaven, since hope remains and never has been driven, from the distracted world – the single scope of my devotion is to worship hope, when hecatombs are slain, and altars burn, when all the deities adored in turn, Let hope be present; and with hope my friend, let every sacrifice commence and end, Yes, insolence injustice every crime, Rapine and wrong, may prosper for a time, yet shall they travel on to swift decay, who tread the crooked path and hollow way. (Theognis) Theognis of Megara, mid 6th – early 5th century, BC
On summer evenings blue, pricked by the wheat on rustic paths, the thin grass I shall tread, and feel its freshness underneath my feet, and, dreaming, let the wind bathe my bare head. Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) translated by Jethro Bithell
I shall not speak, nor think, but, walking slow through nature, I shall love with love my guide, as gypsies wander, where, they do not know, happy as one walks by a woman’s side. Arthur Rimbaud, March 1870, trans. Jethro Bithell.
Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud, born 20 October 1854 and died 10 November 1891, was a French poet born in Charleville, Ardennes. He was part of the decadent movement, he influenced modern literature and arts, inspired various musicians, and prefigured surrealism. All of his poetry was written as a teenager; he gave up creative writing completely before he turned 20. His “genius, its flowering, explosion and sudden extinction, still astonishes”.
Rimbaud was known to have been a libertine and a restless soul. He travelled extensively on three continents before his death from cancer just after his thirty-seventh birthday.
There is mention of a guard from Stalag Luft VI and Gross Tychow, a middle aged man they called ‘Pop’.
He was a sergeant from Sundetenland, part of southern Germany Hitler had annexed from Czechoslovakia in 1938. His two sons were conscripted – he went into the Luftwaffe and they went into the Army. Both were killed on the Russian front, and he took a shine to the prisoners because they were the same age as his sons; they were all kids really. He was thin, like the prisoners, balding and wore glasses. He would talk quietly, afraid of being seen to fraternize with the enemy. He became a fatherly figure, torn apart by the loss of his sons. Pop was fifty-six years old and very reluctant to march again. He had just finished the walk from Gross Tychow.
Ken returned from Germany with a pair of binoculars, which he was given by one of the guards at this time near to liberation, as he would have no further use for them once he was arrested, rather than let them be stolen. He described him as a very gentle guard who looked after him. I believe that this was the same man. ‘Pop’ had encouraged the prisoners to hide and await repatriation, he knew it would be soon.
On the day of departure, extra guards arrived with Alsatian dogs, and the usual warning was given that anyone attempting escape would be shot. Some of our guards were old Wehrmacht, almost as ill equipped to march as the POW’s, who shared a degree of friendship borne of suffering together. The POW’s left Fallingbostel in columns of about 500, still prisoners, not knowing their destination. Rumours went around and Lubeck was mentioned together with the talk of the Northern Redoubt where the Germans were supposed to be ready to make their last stand.
One of the columns of POW’s returned a few days later, their German guards were so worried, they had decided to return to the camp, disobeying orders. Cal Younger was one of these returning POW’s, they thought they were returning to be murdered.
On the road outside the camp, retreating German soldiers were passing by in an almost continuous line in retreat, in lorries, horse drawn wagons, or just on foot. The remaining guards followed suit, blowing up the ammunition dump prior to their departure. It was amongst these retreating German’s, that the columns of POW’s mingled, which would have disastrous effects.
The prisoners sought to make the march the slowest one possible, and in their weak state, they appeared to just shuffle along in a tattered column, staggering along like cattle. Their future was uncertain but there was excitement in the air. They wondered through a battlefield, spread out through the bleak countryside of North-West Germany. They were probably in the greatest danger since being captured, between the retreating Germans and the advancing Allied lines, often in the fighting frontline itself. For some, this would lead to a sad end. George Spenceley said;
“We were outside the wire, seeing houses, trees, fields. There were civilians too, some staring with hostility, a few with pity. Other marching columns passed, German infantry moving up, refugees, foreign workers, and overhead a continuous stream of Allied planes in formation, silver dots in the sky.”
The POW’s were rarely on asphalt roads as they passed over Lüneberger Heide (Luneburg Heath).
George Spenceley continues;
”I remember only a few of our overnight stops, including the first and the last, both in barns, for we usually slept in the open. Most of the time the weather was gentle and there was little rain. Those who had been marched off earlier, before the Russian advance, suffered severe cold and some had died. In contrast we had spruce branches for bed and blanket, and enjoyed more comfortable nights than those of our last camp winter.”
The prisoners had little idea as to what the future held but they thought that they were likely going to be held hostage to help with the agreement that was going to follow a surrender.
They were very short of food and morale as low. I do recall my Father telling me that they went past the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, just a few miles from Fallingbostal, which could not have helped. The emaciated inmates lined the wire, with the guards in the towers training their guns on them. Anything could have happened.
The Germans pushed them along hard, they covered about 12 to 18 miles each day with few rations to support their strength. They marched in groups of about 500, in different columns, travelling down different roads, but all heading roughly in the same direction. Dixie Dean’s travelled on his bicycle from column to column, risking his own life as he travelled around in his smart RAF uniform, risking his own life to help others as he passed through the various lines of defence, brisling with soldiers who could not understand why he was travelling freely. His only passport was a letter given to him by the German commandant who followed in his staff car, telling whoever stopped him to give him free passage.
George Spenceley continues;
“After some days we were given a quarter loaf, and at one halt a slaughtered sheep provided a minute portion of raw meat each; otherwise we ate turnips and mangolds from the fields with water from cattle troughs or ditches. We marched between twelve and eighteen miles a day. I now wonder how we did it. Some found it too gruelling and dropped out. Others made a run for it and if lucky found refuge with French or Russian prisoners. A few were picked up by the S.S. prowling for deserters.”
“After miles of sparsely populated country, we approached Luneburg. We slept somewhere on the outside, still on the Heath, and it was early morning when we marched through the streets. Ahead was Lauenburg, another 20 km east. Once across the Elbe, the Germans would blow the bridge and, we feared, make a last stand with us on the wrong side of the river. It was on this day, or was it another and in another place, that we were delighted to see a landing strip with a line of JU88s in flames. Were they destroyed by the R.A.F. or fired by the Germans in defeat?”
The POW’s had to rely on water from the ditch which they boiled before drinking but dysentery was riff. The POW’s would be incapacitated with this and they were left where they lay.
George Spenceley continues;
“During the march, W/O Jack Gutteridge states that he escaped from the marching column with W/O Evans and was picked up by the 2nd Monmouthshire B.L.A. at Bispingham. W/O R Evans reports that he escaped on 14th April 1945 on the forced march from Fallingbostal. “Waited till guards were strung out and ran into woods. Reached 2nd Battallion Monmouthshires at Bispingen on 21st April. Companion was W/O J Gutteridge. Had diarrhoea but lack of food cured it”.
Harold Bennett, said:-
“He hid up in a barn on the march but were attached to another column the next day. German with a dog found us. Not very fit owing to malnutrition and large carbuncle on the neck. Three army corporals were with me. They were found with me. I don’t know their names.”
Reg Griffin say’s that on the 14th April 1945 he broke away from the column of POW’s, 5 miles from the Elbe and reached our advance units on the 18/4/45.
Harold Bennett reported that he hid up in a barn on the march but were discovered by a German with a dog and were reattached to another column the next day. He could not put up much resistance as he was not very fit owing to malnutrition and large carbuncle on the neck. He had three army corporals were with him but he did not know their names.
Most of the guards were reluctant to fire on escaping prisoners. When two prisoners ran down an embankment, their intentions were loudly announced by their crashing frying pans hanging from their packs, a guard lined them up in their sights but did not pull the trigger.
The prisoners trudged through the scarred landscape, full of people with nowhere to go but desperate to get there. Many villagers were hostile to the prisoners but they were happy to trade food for luxuries, such as soap and cigarettes. The American’s had many cigarettes that they shared around to enable all to trade, but as the prisoner’s trudged through each village, they considered that the market was spoilt by lack of goods to trade or the villages also becoming flush with trading goods. The country was collapsing around them, the Germans were very fearful of what the future held for them.
The prisoner’s main fear was that of fire as each night they usually slept in barns by the roadside. One prisoner recalls being on the top floor, all lying on straw and everyone smoking.
The prisoner’s were also afraid of what the future held for them and they had no indication of what the future held for them after the war was over. Many of them had spent four years as prisoner’s with a rigid routine for them to follow, worried about where the next meal came from but not about the future. When they had been ordered to march, they were happy to be out but this routine came to an end and they felt vulnerable. The roads were crowded with similar columns of prisoner’s, mainly Russian, civilians in search of shelter and German soldiers, some of them heavily armed and heading for the front.
Above them the prisoner’s watched Allied fighter planes, such as Typhoons, having a good recce, trying hard to make out what was below them, friend or foe.
16th April, Colditz is liberated and the POW’s left behind at Fallingbostal are liberated by the British Second Army. 17th April, Bergen-Belsen concentration camp is liberated.
Meanwhile, the invasion forces were advancing and the 7th Armoured Division was nearing the area. Having rested and reorganised, they continued their push towards Hamburg.
The Devonshire’s were lent to support the 4th Armoured Brigade while they expanded their bridgehead over the River Weser and by the 11th April 1945, they had reached Kirchboizen, just 7 miles short of the next divisional objective of Soltau. The 11th and 8th Hussars crossed the River Aller at Rethem and moved towards Walsrode, covering 22 miles. They were weirey and battle hardened having fought their way through Holland from the Normandy Beaches, into Germany, defeating various pockets of resistance on the way including German parachute Troops and very determined cadet forces and passing the debris of Allied parachute and glider bourne troops who had crossed the Rhine.
A real boost to the morale of these troops came on the 16th April, when ‘B’ squadron, 11th Hussars and a recce troop of 8th Hussars, liberated the POW camp, Stalag XIb, in the woods, south west of Fallingbostal. The tanks moved on along the northern edge of the camp parallel to the road, crossing the railway tracks and sidings. Stopping some 50 metres from the autobahn bridge, they were unsure of the location of Stalag XI-B as it was concealed by trees. However, one of the tank commanders noticed a figure amongst the trees with a maroon beret and from then the job was easy. The tanks were met at the gates by a guard of ‘Very smart paratroopers’ under the command of RSM John Lord.
The situation at Stalag XI-D/357 was very different; none of the discipline evident earlier was seen, with dirty, ill fed and almost hysterically happy soldiers being the norm.
Here, the two camps, one held 6,500 and the other one another 6,000 prisoners. Roughly half were British and American POW’s and amongst this throng they found men from 4th CLY and ‘A’ Company, 1st Rifle Brigade, captured at Villers-Bocage in 1944. The Rifle Brigade also found five riflemen captured at Calais in 1940 and another from 9th Rifle Brigade captured at Derna in 1941. A detachment from the Norfolk Yeomanry were also there, along with some men from 8th and 11th Hussars captured at Sidi Rezegh in 1941.
The condition of liberated POW’s at Fallingbostal was quite upsetting to many, having been on near starvation diets for some time.
Meanwhile, in the town of Fallingbostal itself, the Queens found it defended by mortars and anti-tank guns and had to clear it house by house.
Back on the march North, the POW’s passed through Lauenburg, by the Elbe. Now a charming tourist spot with narrow cobbled streets, 18th century houses, bars, restaurants, a few hotels with pleasure boats and barges along the waterfront.
George Spenceley continues:-
“It must have looked much the same to us then, but we were oblivious to its charms, wondering only how much longer we would have to trudge. We stayed on the main road towards Boizenburg, following the river until a minor road led north, and then, close to the village of Lance we made our night halt in open pasture.
“I remember this overnight halt because for the only time on the march we went to sleep uncomfortably bloated, thanks to the gift of a solitary Spitfire. Lacking a military target, it aimed at a barge slowly travelling up river, carrying not arms and ammunition, but herring roe, much of which somehow made its way to our camp giving many of us severe stomach problems next morning.”
“Other incidents of those last weeks of marching stand out. There was the day we found a dead horse. Decomposed as it decidedly was, there was a rush to cut off pieces of meat with knives or bayonets borrowed from our guards. Some chewed the raw meat there and then. Personal survival was our major thought, and there was some talk of fighting over food, but I saw none. On the contrary, I recall acts of kindness by the less weak helping weaker companions. One unexpected act of generosity I clearly recall. Our column became scattered as the days passed, our pace dictating the timing and length of breaks. One break of our group was at the gates of a substantial farm with Russian or Polish women slave labourers. It must have been their midday break for they came out to us with plates laden with hot potatoes and vegetables, their own meal. This was the first genuinely kind act we saw in the outside world.”
A Picture of POW’s preparing to leave Fallingbostal.
Sgt. Geoffrey Thompson escaped on 17th April 1945 by re-crossing the Elbe. He and 25 other prisoners pretended to be sickness. After they crossed the bridge they were liberated by the 11th Armoured Division South of Luneberg.
As some of the prisoner’s celebrated their freedom, as parts of the column or escapers were overtaken by the advancing Allies, a tragedy was also about to overtake one of the Groups that had left Fallingbostal on the 19th April 1945. The prisoners had just recovered from low morale and had been on the march for about a fortnight since leaving Fallingbostal, heading roughly North-East along straight tracks through forests and fields to the flood plains of the River Elbe. When they crossed the river itself, the front part of the column had waited until the early hours of the morning to sneak across at the town of Lauerburg, hoping that the darkness would cover them from the allied aircraft above as they had already witnessed the effects of these aircraft on various tugs and barges that had fallen prey earlier. They raced over the bridge nervously as the bright moon lit up the scene, showing the German soldiers mining the pillars on the bridge as they crossed, while nearby groups of German soldiers were being fired at as they moved towards the front line.
The prisoners lay in a ditch and watched as German tanks travelled by, carrying young soldiers back to the front to fight for the last time and as they moved off, they heard the explosions behind them as the German engineers detonated the bridge as they departed.
The prisoners loathed this crossing as it symbolised that they were being marched the wrong way, returning to the East from where they had come many weeks before. The Germans seemed to have no orders or ideas as to what to do. The prisoners were very much in the dark with only their imagination to keep them informed.
The next day they passed a sign pointing to the village of Gresse and they could see the rooftops and church in front of them. The POW’s stayed the night in and around Gresse and they discovered that Deans had been there before them and the following morning they were supplied with Red Cross parcels, the first since Fallingbostal, a welcome relief from their foreboding at the future. Many of the prisoners converged on Gresse, 12,000 according to Cal Younger, in this little village and were encouraged to pick-up their parcels and get on their way, to the countryside, where there was more room.
The prisoners marched out in a long line, refreshing themselves as they went, on the morning of Thursday, 19th April 1945, as they headed North again along a forest lane and out onto a stretch of open grassland. As the front of the column passed back into the forest lanes, the column stretching a long way behind them, they noticed some RAF planes above them, looking for targets. The prisoners in the open watched the Typhoons and counted nine of them, circling them. They watched again as the Typhoons peeled off, expecting them to show themselves to the prisoners and their dominance of the sky. They paid them little notice as the planes made a low banking turn and disappeared, line astern, behind the trees.
The prisoners waved to the approaching aircraft and cheered, as they roared over the prisoners at 30 feet, until they noticed puffs of smoke from underneath the wings as they released their rockets straight at the column of prisoners. They threw themselves to the ground, hid behind trees, anything to protect themselves from this attack, but for some, there was nowhere to hide as the Typhoons unleashed their fire with only a few seconds between them for the prisoners to gather their thoughts together. Following the release of their rockets, the Typhoons opened up with machine guns on the unfortunate prisoners below. The prisoners waved their blue RAF uniforms to the planes to try to distract them but in doing so, some lost their lives.
The horse drawn cart bringing up the wounded and non-mobile prisoners had been particularly targeted by the Typhoons, the cart was smashed up with many dead lying around.
George Spenceley recounts the events some time later:-
“It must have been next day that a tragedy happened that we might have anticipated. With clear skies and Allied air forces active above, neither the high bomber formations nor low flying fighters gave us anything but joy. When some ground attack machines flew low over us we waved. It seemed impossible that our long ragged column could ever be seen as a target. Tragically, we were wrong.”
“Two such parallel columns of our men were approaching the village of Gresse when a flight of six British Typhoons came over and flew south again. They then returned, low and in line astern, aiming at the other column. We watched horrified as puffs of smoke came from under the wing of the first one. Five attacked with rockets, then cannon. The sixth turned off, perhaps aware of the error. The ultimate tragedy had occurred: our own air force in which we had all served, had killed and maimed their own.”
“Any thought of rushing over to the other column was barred by our guards who ordered us to continue, doubtless anxious to find concealment in the forest ahead. At least we were spared the sight of our fellow airmen, some prisoners of four years, killed within two weeks of release.”
Accounts of this ‘incident’ of the 19th April vary as to the number of Typhoons involved, how many ‘strikes’ they made and the number of those killed. Dixie Dean has said sixty were killed, some dying of their injuries in the hospital at Boizenburg, most other accounts put the number at 30 to 37. One account says the bodies were buried in a mass grave in the churchyard at Gresse after a service given by the local Pastor. Some say that the Typhoons attacked three times. What is certain is that the attacked went on for about ten minutes, leaving carnage when they left, and it occurred 2 weeks from the end of the war in Europe. Those killed have now been reinterred by the War Graves Commission in the Berlin 1939-45 War Cemetery. F/Sgt John Arthur Gibbs, a member of Ken’s hut at Fallingbostal, is buried in grave 6.B.13, having been amongst those POW’s who died that day, having spent a year, nearly to the day as a POW. Others had been there much longer and were in sight of being released.
“There was a hell of a mess splattered all over the countryside. I think the last one in the flight that dive-bomber us realized that they had made a mistake, because he peeled off and went on his way. But it was too late by then. The damage had been done”.
He arranged for the injured to be taken to hospital in a nearby town and organised the graves for the dead. A mass funeral was held presided over by the Pastor from the Church on the hill. The casualties came from all countries and included soldiers who had been taken at Dunkirk, nearly five years before. Many German guards also died, older, family men, some of whom had cared for the prisoners.
W/O Michael Robert’s later reported being with my Father that day, when they helped bury the dead.
George Spenceley continues:-
“Last year I drove along the road where the tragedy occurred, through a hamlet of new houses now called Heidekrug (a familiar name) to the village of Gresse. In the churchyard there is a line of military graves where five of our guards are buried.”
Sergeant Alfred William Abbott stated that ‘Whilst sleeping in barn at Lamin attack was made by aircraft (presumably British) 2 men W/O’s Durnett (actually Durnan) and Brown were killed and approximately 20 wounded. I was wounded in left forearm’.
W/O Hamilton Durnan 1053444 died on 22nd April 1945, aged 28, probably following an attack by an RAF mosquito. Durnan was captured on 28th March 1942 whilst flying a 77 Squadron Whitley Z9386 on a raid on Rostock, having been in SL3, SL6, SL4 and S357. He is buried in the Berlin 1939 – 1945 War cemetery, reference 5.J.24. The Son of William and Agnes Durnan, of Thornliebank, Renfrewshire.
W/O Reginald Alfred Brown 614115 died on 22nd April 1945 aged 25, probably following an attack by an RAF mosquito. Brown was captured on 25th June 1942 whilst flying a 78 Squadron Halifax W1067 on a raid on Bremen, having been in SL3, SL6, SL4 and S357. His body was never recognised and he is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial, panel 269. The son of Alfred and Ellen Brown; husband of Audrey Brown, of Bennington, Hertfordshire. His POW Liberation Questionnaire was dated
Sergeant Francis Fenton (No relation that l know of, but from 35 Squadron Bomber Command aircrew was shot down on 29th July 1943) of Barrow in Furness reported the incident as well. Whilst on march. Billeted in barn. Attacked by allied aircraft. Bombed and machined gunned. 2 Dead, 28 wounded. Place Camin, Hecklenburg.’ His POW Liberation Questionnaire was dated 11th May 1945, the same as Ken’s.’
Flight Sergeant Roy Victor Charles Witham was shot down in 1944 whilst flying with 630 Squadron and was captured in Antwerp. He reported:- ‘Bad issue of German ratios at Fallingbostal. Marching on the road, Straffing on our own lads by our own aircraft. (1 loaf of bread was made to last us a week).’ He also states he ‘Cut wires which were for use to blow bridges at other side of Elbe, April.’
These was not the only friendly fire incidents to befall the prisoners through these chaotic times so Dean’s risked his own life to go through the lines and warn the Allied command of the true situation. This is covered well elsewhere in other writing of this period.
Deans, on the ground, encouraged and helped all the prisoner’s but he tried to discourage further escape attempts, although he did not forbid them. He encouraged everyone to stick together and told anyone considering escape that they would be on their own. He reminded them about the various columns of German soldiers, SS guards, who were out there shooting escaped prisoners and deserters alike. A group of 6 escaped prisoners were found in a ditch, hands tied behind their back, with their throats cut. Deans kept in touch with reality through John Bristow’s radio, hidden in a billycan, which would be set up each evening as they slept.
Geoffrey Thompson reports in his Liberation questionnaire that ‘17/4/45. escape from crossing Elbe by means of pretence of sickness, with party of 25 men – on return were liberated by 11th Armoured Division South of Luneberg.’
Bob Martin states in his liberation questionnaire that he escaped ‘from marching column – April 1945 with W/O (‘Bill’ W W) Hall at Rolesen – recaptured 18th April 1945 by British tanks.’
W/O E W B Evans reports that on 20th April 1945 but also reports “Escaped from column on 4th April (May?) with W/O’s Partridge and Wiggins when marching from Fallingbostal. Walked to the R. Aller (River Aller), near Bonne, for 4 days recaptured by German Marines on 8th April (May?). Companions OK.” Anthony Brian Partridge also confirms this. Mike Wiggins says “escaped from column when Germans were evacuating Stalag 357, with W/O Evans EWB and W/O A Partridge 4th April 1945. Recaptured on East Bank of River Aller 9th April 1945.” Evans reports at this point that he was returned to Stalag 11B, Fallingbostal.
John William Davidson escaped from the march on 8th April 1945 ‘Hid in the woods until 15/4/45. Released 16/4/45. All companions now in British hands.’ His Lib report is dated 19th April 1945, he escaped with Peacock, Byrne and King. Edward Laurence Byrne, a radar operator with the Fighter Interception Unit, was shot down in Blenheim Z5721 and was captured at St. Omer, France on 13th September 1940, states ‘escaped from column marching from Fallingbostal, near Lintzen Village, N.E. Celle. Hid in woods with W/O’s Davidson, Mercer, Peacock and King. Quite fit. All five successfully contacted tanks of British 11th Arm. Div. 16/4/45.’ Lib report dated 22/4/45. Sergeant Neil Shillinglaw Mercer further reported ‘Escaped from column whilst on march at Lintzen 10/4/45 with W/O’s Peacock, Byrne, King, Davidson. Physically fit. Companions repatriated.’ His Liberation Questionnaire was completed on 22nd April 1945.
The Fighter Interception Unit Blenheim IVf Z5721 in which Byrne was flying was piloted by Flight Lieutenant R.G.Ker-Ramsey and was on night patrol over the French coast near Calais on 13th September 1940 but this was during the height of the Battle of Britain so it unclear what this aircraft was doing that side of the Channel at that time. It is also unclear as to whether the aircraft crashed out to sea and there are no records of this but as the aircraft was carrying top secret equipment, it is hoped that this was the case.
From Battle of Britain memorial: In early July 1940 Ker-Ramsay was with 25 Squadron at Martlesham Heath. He was attached to the FIU at Shoreham on the 12th. He was the captain of a Blenheim which failed to return from an operational patrol on the night of 13th September.
Ker-Ramsay and his crew, G.Dixon & E.L.Byrne, baled out of their Blenheim and were taken prisoner.
In 1941 Ker-Ramsay was on the Escape Committee at Stalag Luft 1 and worked on two tunnels, both were discovered before completion. During his time at the camp he is said to have worked on more than 100 tunnels.
Transferred to Stalag Luft III, he worked on the three simultaneous tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry. He organised and controlled the exit during the mass breakout in March 1944 and unselfishly sacrificed his own escape. In April he was appointed Camp Security Officer and it was largely through his efforts that the camp had a reliable news service.
On 4th February 1945 Ker-Ramsay was one of some 3,000 men evacuated from Stalag Luft III and sent to the Merchant Navy camp, Marlag-Milag, at Westertimke. He set up and ran the camp radio there until liberation in April 1945.
Ker-Ramsay was made an MBE (gazetted 28th June 1946) for services as a PoW. He retired from the RAF in 1948 as a Squadron Leader.
Mike Whitworth says under escapes “1st attempt while marching from camp 357 to unknown destination 10/4/45. Recaptured by retreating units of German infantry 13/4/45 (Approx). 2nd escape from the march 14/4/45. Contacted British unit 19/4/45 position not known.”
John Neil Prendergrast, Head tunneller at most of the NCO camps, was more vocal about the situation. He was captured at Wilhelmshaven on 21st July 1940 whilst serving with 61 Squadron and suffered burns to his face and hands but this did not stop him making many escape attempts. He escaped from Selibin Stalag ……., having been purged to there with a number of other POW’s when the German’s became suspicious about a tunnel at Sagan. Upon arriving, the POW’s immediately started a new tunnel and exited on 5th March 1943 together with ‘30 odd including W/Cdr Day – recaptured March 8th by’ Police, physically fit, All ‘caught except 4, of which no subsequent news to date – Heard Lt/Cdr B……. either home or killed Denmark.’ He also escaped from Heydekrug with Mssrs Fancy, Garrioch, Street, ……..
Prendergrast was very concerned about the excitement and celebrations of the early released POW’s, having been released early himself. He stated: ‘I understand from W/O “Steve” Beavan, who spoke to me on the matter at Sabingen, that one or two loose mouthed Kriegies mentioned names of personnel connected with escape and security organisations of RAF NCO POW’s, in interviews with special war correspondents at Fallingbostal when we were relieved – This is highly dangerous as many of the people concerned are still in German hands liable to be held as hostages – Ensure that such names do not get into print! Understand W/O Hall is already doing something about this.’
He went on to say about other things that should be brought to the attention of the powers that be that; ’In the event of another war (God help us!) something should be done to ensure that “escape” takes precedence over every other activity in NCO’s camps as it does in Officer’s camps – Secondly more attempt should be made to t bring every Kriegie to same level by stopping personal parcels and making everything communal – this would prevent serious disaffection and racketeering among different nationalities, with Jerry except on organised basis
“Of the rest of the march I have few clear memories. We must have looked anxiously at the sky, but weaker by now, we were an even longer line of men straggling into the distance, much less of a target. The guards were strung out too, doubtless suffering in their own way as they were all older non-combatants, perhaps equally ill fed. Starvation ravaged the column and dysentery followed. A man loses all self respect with dysentery. We dropped our trousers when need arose, often in public and without any embarrassment. I remember doing that once, with several others, on a village green, regardless of local women passing by.”
“Many of our Luftwaffe guards had been with us since Heyderkrug and gave us little trouble: they were elderly, unfit and disillusioned. They shared something of our sufferings and showed us some sympathy. With German defeat imminent, they were surely aware that our roles would soon be reversed. Any discipline they had tried to impose in the night camps was now relaxed so that we could forage for food or wood. There were, however, exceptions.”
“Returning one evening with an armful of wood to boil up some stolen swedes I was stopped by a shouted command from two Luftwaffer N.C.O.s, a feldwebel and an unteroffizier with one of their guard dogs between them. The senior man released the dog with a command and it rushed towards me. I dared not move. Having been brought up with dogs, this was going to be the big test of my standing with them. The dog reached my feet, looked up, then wagged its tail. The unteroffizier, furious with both of us, drew his Mauser, thrusting it into my face, his hand shaking. I recognised him, a hated figure, the recipient of many of our taunts. We called him the Victory Parader. With Hitler’s march through France, he had left his home in the Bronx, New York to join the Victorious German forces. With his command of English he was appointed dolmetscher in a P.O.W. camp.”
“The route that we took after the tragedy near Gresse was through what is now Lauenburgische reservat Schael-See, an attractive, sparsely populated recreation area of lake and forest, but it was survival that was on our minds. For our German escort, their future must have weighed on their minds too, a fate less certain than ours. Our hunger and dysentery dictated the pace of our journey and the frequency and length of our halts, with our guards playing a secondary role. While for a few fanatical S.S. remnants the struggle might continue, for our guards, almost as weary as we were, the end would surely be welcome.”
22nd April, Soviet forces liberate Stalag Luft IIIA at Luckenwalde. 27th April, US and Soviet forces link up at the River Elbe.
29th April, Stalag VIIA at Moosburg is liberated by Patton’s Third Army. 30th April, Berlin falls to the Red Army after a nine-day battle. Hitler commits suicide. 2nd May, British troops capture the Baltic ports of Lubeck and Wismar. 4th May, German forces in Western Europe surrender on Luneburg Heath.
30th April, Hitler commits suicide, ending the oath that the German soldiers had given to their country and opening up their reasons to stay alive. Upon hearing the news, Ostmann, the German Commandant in charge of the prisoners, surrendered to Dixie Deans.
The men from Fallingbostal had been marching for about 4 weeks now and were spread all around Luneburg Heath, and it took sometime for Ostmann’s orders to get to all of his guards and the prisoners themselves. All attempts by the German’s to continue the march was resisted.
George Spenceley said:-
“For me, a speedy end to the march had become vital, unless I was to suffer permanent injury. Apart from the German-issue wooden clogs, my only footwear was a pair of ill-fitting French army boots and disintegrating socks. I had developed a seriously septic foot, each day becoming increasingly painful, and in the end it was so swollen that I could only hobble along with my foot wrapped in sacking, not merely at the back but many yards behind the column, my only companion George Ritchie who refused to be separated from me, and a solitary guard, nervous at being parted from his fellows. We too were nervous and felt highly vulnerable. There had been tales of fanatical Nazis roaming the country ready to shoot or string up suspected deserters or escapees.”
“The Russians were near, and every German’s greatest dread was Russian captivity. Few had any illusions as to the treatment they could expect and it must have been for this reason that the direction of the march was changed back towards the Elbe in the west. With roles reversed, and the guards our prisoners, the Western allies would decide their future. Such thoughts were in more minds than those of our guards. Small groups of German soldiers also hurried westwards, eager to evade the Russians. Some stopped to talk; one even helped me with my load for a short while.”
“At the village of Salem we caught up with the main body, preparing to settle for the night. As we were now closer to the advancing British than to the Russians in the east there would be no further marching; here we would await events.”
“It was relief for us perhaps, but for the local civilians, many of them women evacuees from Hamburg, there was real fear. Few Germans were unaware of the horrors inflicted upon Russia and now that army was moving westwards, bent upon revenge. As we were later to learn, their fear of rape was fully justified. To those refugee women the arrival of a bunch of weak and starving terror fliegers was the lesser of the two evils and might even protect them from rape and pillage. We were, after all, fellow members of the Aryan race rather than untermenchen from the east. It was for this reason rather than charity that they offered us the comfort of their homes. By now all German military control over us had gone, the guards that were still around amenable and anxious to seek favour. Unhindered by them, George and I could have had the comfort of a bed, but we chose to sleep on a barn floor, too weak, even, to stretch up for a bale of hay above.”
“Those two historic days were filled with heightened emotions and expectations.” George Spenceley said “There was fear and uncertainty in the minds of the village women; relief and uncertainty among our guards and the fugitives hurrying west. For us there could only be unalloyed joy and relief. The others who shared our joy were a handful of gaunt and ragged Russian prisoners from some nearby work camp bent on mischief. They had found guns and were on the rampage for loot and drink, perhaps even revenge. Even while understanding their motives, years of imprisonment had not destroyed our values and the few among us who could speak Russian were able to restrain their activities.”
“On our second day in Salem unarmed German soldiery continued to stream west. We had heard no Russian gunfire but there was apprehension in the minds of the villagers and perhaps they welcomed, as we did, the sounds of our own military activity in the west: occasional small arms fire and the rumble of tanks raised our expectations.”
“It was the sound of shouting that advised us of our liberation. A line of British armoured vehicles trundled slowly into the village.” It was May 2nd. “There was much laughter as vehicles were surrounded by deliriously happy men; there was weeping too, and I saw one man kneeling in prayer. By now I could only hobble but the Major in the leading vehicle sent me to the tail of the column for a medical sergeant to dress my foot. It was then that I became abruptly aware of the contrasting attitudes towards the enemy between these battle-hardened soldiers and ourselves. These men had spent months in combat and had experienced horrors from which we imprisoned airmen had been protected. Truly, we in Bomber Command had inflicted death and destruction on a massive scale, but our witness was remote: flashes on the ground, flames in the sky. We might have been appalled by individual suffering at close quarters, but for us the sky preserved our distance and our sensitivity.”
2nd May, a fleet of lorries arrived along with scout cars and handed out cigarettes, biscuits, chocolate, white bread, everything that the prisoners had missed for so long.
Joe Walker said that he was liberated on 2nd May 1945 and his questionnaire is completed on the 9th May. Malcolm Gillies was also released on 2nd May and his is dated 11th May, same as Kens. Others reported Liberation ‘South of Lubeck by the British Army on 2nd May 1945. We went by road to Luneburg and were flown from here to Brussells and then on to England.’
W/O Leslie Chappell states that there was a “Lack of food and medical attention whilst on the march from 5th April 1945 to 3rd May 1945 from German authorities.” He also reported “Poor food and bad living conditions at Fallenbostal (Stalag 357)”. He completed his Liberation questionnaire on 5th May 1945.
Sergeant William Henry Smyth was ‘Liberated whilst on the march by troops of the British 2nd Army on 5th May 1945 in the area of Lavenburg.’
“The difference in attitudes towards the enemy between the released prisoners and those still serving became apparent, to George Spenceley at once. The sergeant, needing something more substantial than sacking to cover my foot, rushed to the nearest house, kicked open the door, and returned with an assortment of slippers. The longest one cut half open served me better than sacking. While this was going on, our former guards were being rounded up as if for inspection. ‘How did they treat you?’ we were asked. It seemed hard for our liberators to understand that we had few complaints. At some point our dolmetscher, the Victory Parader, was pointed out as the man who had set the dog on me. My sergeant reacted immediately, picking up a Sten gun. It was good to see the fear on the man’s face, but we persuaded the sergeant to drop the gun.”
“Subsequent events passed in a haze of relief and joy. For the first time in years I could relax and let things happen. George and I must at some time have returned to the barn to pick up what little of ours there was worth keeping. The barn is still there, disused and surrounded by modern houses.”
“The armoured column soon left us, anxious to push on to Lubeck, but a unit remained to organise our evacuation in captured German vehicles. I suppose we must have kept some military escort but I remember little of the drive except more unarmed Germany soldiery travelling west and white sheets draped from many house windows. At the bridgehead at Lauenburg I was parted from my companions and taken to a field casualty station. I was deloused, put on a stretcher, and then taken across the Elbe on an amphibious vehicle. My day ended lying in a hospital bed in Luneburg attended by an attractive nurse. I wept when I heard her Yorkshire “Ee, thou dust look thin lad”. I was clean, wearing pyjamas and lying between clean sheets.”
With nothing to hold them back and freedom in their veins many of the prisoners confiscated vehicles and guns and went for a drive. They had no intension of using the guns, it just marked the transition from prisoner to freedom.
My Father did tell me that upon release they went out into the countryside and found a German lorry parked up next to a lake. The German occupants of the lorry were throwing things into the lake, presumably to avoid their capture by the Allies. Ken returned to England with a German Pike top, together with a German infantry bayonet, belt and buckle.
“Next day I was taken to theatre for attention to my foot which was drained, and I received my first penicillin injection, but for some days I was only able to walk on crutches. I was luckier than most of my fellow ex-prisoners, all anxious to fly home, as the injured were given priority. I was taken to an airfield on Luneburger Heide, and the doctor there was from Harrogate, formerly a pupil of my old school. In the Dakota to Brussels I found a bottle of champagne beside me.”
8th May, The last of the POW’s evacuated from Fallingbostal are liberated on this day.
It is true to say that there were some accounts of revenge by the now liberated prisoners of war, with so called hanging jury’s at large in the country trying to bring the various guards who had mistreated them to justice, often with the help of the liberating soldiers. Copies of British Newspapers were also available which showed photographs of Belsen, just down the road from Fallingbostal, and other concentration camps which pictured the horrors of war at its worst.
Tempers quickly became frayed as the prisoners were left in Germany and it quickly became obvious that there was a need to accelerate the return of all the prisoners, not just the wounded, as soon as possible to England. This was accepted and a fleet of truck was dispatched to take them back to the West.
Very careful plans had been made by the Ministry in London to cater for the return and the various needs of the liberated prisoners and these now came into operation. The men were quickly deloused and brought back into military discipline, with debriefing’s carried out and back pay available, but it is clear that their plans had not considered the numbers that were immediately requesting repatriation home, with more than 250,000 Allied prisoners, being just part of the overall homeless and displaced population of Europe.
The prisoners however, had priority and the RAF commenced Operation Exodus at the end of April. Initially undertaken by RAF Transport Command, together with transport aircraft from the US Air Force, the operation was soon clearly not returning the numbers that were now wandering around Germany and an urgent request was submitted to RAF Bomber Command to provide 50 aircraft per day to evacuate Prisoners of War from Germany and so the bombers stood down from their more destructive duties, but the lack of operational airfields, aided by these very bombers, further hampered the return of the POW’s. There was no shortage of willing aircrew prepared to give up their rest days to fly prisoner’s home from Germany as soon as possible and they welcomed this change to their otherwise grim role, but having to adapt to new thinking, how to load a ‘live’ cargo and landing and taking-off from battle damaged airfields.
Some prisoners looked around for transport of their own, whatever vehicle they could use, or barter for flights to Brussels or Paris. Those liberated at Fallingbostal collected their own vehicles and as they waited for transport home, it is reported that there were over a hundred cars each night in the compound at Fallingbostal.
A few hundred prisoners were being shipped out each day with the general rule that those who had been there the longest went first. They were picked up by lorry from the various points where they were billeted and taken through the war torn countryside to the airfield. The airfield was not much better with damaged aircraft strewn about the badly bombed landing strip.
At Celle, the prisoner’s climbed into Dakotas, Lancaster’s and Stirling’s and followed a line through Germany to the Belgium frontier and Brussels, the pilots proudly showing off the damage that the bombers had inflicted on the towns below, in some circumstances, circling towns where the damage was particularly great.
They landed at Brussels airport and were taken to a large hanger where ladies from the Women’s Voluntary Service dished out tea and cakes together with soap and cigarettes. They were then put on another transport for the last leg to England and their first look at their country from the air for many years. The White Cliffs of Dover featured in many stories told by returning POW’s.
Others were not so fortunate in either the speed that they returned or whether they made it or not. Various camps did not receive the same priority in getting the prisoners out and others were involved in aircraft crashes, in which, some prisoners died.
Peter Albert Balson, William Wrightson Hall and Albert John Tysowski.
Alan Andrew Fuller, William Henry Ernest Harwood, Robert Evans and Bob Martin.
Donald Arthur Boutle, Walter Kershaw, Gordon F Bottomley and Joe A Walker.