The March (1945)

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Two survivors of the March pictured in front of a damaged Luftwaffe Arado Ar 96 at Celle Airfield on 18 April 1945.

"The March" refers to a series of forced marches during the final stages of the Second World War in Europe. From a total of 257,000 western Allied prisoners of war held in German military prison camps, over 80,000 POWs were forced to march westward across Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany in extreme winter conditions, over about four months between January and April 1945. This series of events has been called various names: "The Great March West", "The Long March", "The Long Walk", "The Long Trek", "The Black March", "The Bread March", and "Death March Across Germany", but most survivors just called it "The March".

As the Soviet Army was advancing, German authorities decided to evacuate POW camps, to delay liberation of the prisoners. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of German civilian refugees, most of them women and children, as well as civilians of other nationalities, were also making their way westward on foot, in hazardous weather conditions.

Notorious examples include:

  • from Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow in Pomerania the prisoners faced a 500 mile trek in blizzard conditions across Germany, during which hundreds died, and;
  • a march from Stalag VIII-B, known as the "Lamsdorf Death March",[1] which was similar to the better-known Bataan Death March (1942) in terms of mortality rates.[2]
  • from Stalag Luft III in Silesia to Bavaria

Motives[edit]

On 19 July 1944, Adolf Hitler issued an order from his headquarters, Wolfsschanze, 100 miles west of Stalag Luft VI, "concerning preparations for the defense of the Reich". It put the German civilian population on a total war footing and issued instructions for preparations for evacuations of 'foreign labor' (slave labor) and civilians away from the advancing Soviet Army in the east. Item 6(a) called for "preparations for moving prisoners of war to the rear". This prolonged the war for hundreds of thousands of Allied personnel, as well as causing them severe hardship, starvation, injuries and/or death.

In the later stages of the war there were great concerns among POWs over the motives for moving them westward. Many different and conflicting rumors abounded, including suggestions that:

  • They were being moved towards concentration camps to be killed, in revenge for Allied commanders' deliberate targeting of civilians, in cities such as Dresden. These events were also the origin of one of the German terms for Allied bomber crews: terrorflieger ("terror aviators").
  • POWs would be force-marched until their deaths from exhaustion, a practise that had already been made notorious by the Japanese military (see, for instance: Bataan Death March).
  • They would be held hostage to leverage peace deals, including claims that they would be held at a national redoubt in the Alps. This claim was backed up by SS General Gottlob Berger, who was appointed general commander of POW camps during 1944. Berger stated during his trial for war crimes (1948), that Hitler had considered a threat to execute 35,000 POWs, unless the Allies agreed to a peace deal. Similarly, SS chief Heinrich Himmler had made similar plans, centred on the Baltic coastal region and set up a new headquarters in a castle on the Bay of Lübeck.[3]

Main evacuation routes to the west[edit]

There were three main POW evacuation routes to the west:

The marches began in July 1944, at Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug, when thousands of western Allied POWs were marched either to Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow (a journey which also involved a 60 hour journey by ship to Swinemunde), or to Stalag XX-A at Thorn in Poland (with part of the distance covered by cattle train).

The marches[edit]

January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the 20th century in Europe, with blizzards and temperatures as low as –25 °C (–13 °F), and even until the middle of March, temperatures were well below 0 °C (32 °F).[citation needed] Most of the POWs were ill-prepared for the evacuation, having suffered years of poor rations and wearing clothing ill-suited to the appalling winter conditions.

In most camps, the POWs were broken up in groups of 250 to 300 men and because of the inadequate roads and the flow of battle, not all the prisoners followed the same route. The groups would march 20 to 40 kilometers a day - resting in factories, churches, barns and even in the open. Soon long columns of POWs were wandering over the northern part of Germany with little or nothing in the way of food, clothing, shelter or medical care.

Prisoners from different camps had different experiences: sometimes the Germans provided farm wagons for those unable to walk. There seldom were horses available, so teams of POWs pulled the wagons through the snow. Sometimes the guards and prisoners became dependent on each other, other times the guards became increasingly hostile. Passing through some villages, the residents would throw bricks and stones, and in others, the residents would share their last food. Some groups of prisoners were joined by German civilians who were also fleeing from the Russians. Some who tried to escape or could not go on were shot by guards.

Those with intact boots had the dilemma of whether to remove them at night - if they left them on, trench foot could result; if they removed them, they may not get their swollen feet back into their boots in the morning or, worse, the boots may freeze or be stolen.[3]

With so little food they were reduced to scavenging to survive. Some were reduced to eating dogs and cats — and even rats[citation needed] and grass—anything they could lay their hands on. Already underweight from years of prison rations, some were at half their pre-war body weight by the end.

Because of the unsanitary conditions and a near starvation diet, hundreds of POWs died of disease along the way and many more were ill. Dysentery was common; sufferers had the indignity of soiling themselves whilst having to continue to march, and being further weakened by the debilitating effects of illness. This disease was easily spread from one group to another when they followed the same route and rested in the same places. Many POWs suffered from frostbite which could lead to gangrene. Typhus, spread by body lice, was a risk for all POWs, but was now increased by using overnight shelter previously occupied by infected groups. Some men simply froze to death in their sleep.[3][4]

In addition to these conditions were the dangers from air attack by Allied forces mistaking the POWs for retreating columns of German troops. On April 19, 1945, at a village called Gresse, 30 Allied POWs died and 30 were seriously injured (possibly fatally) in a "friendly-fire" situation when strafed by a flight of RAF Typhoons.[5][6][7]

As winter drew to a close, suffering from the cold abated and some of the German guards became less harsh in their treatment of POWs. But the thaw rendered useless the sledges made by many POWs to carry spare clothing, carefully preserved food supplies and other items. So, the route became littered with items that could not be carried. Some even discarded their greatcoats, hoping that the weather did not turn cold again.[4] As the columns reached the western side of Germany they ran into the advancing western Allied armies. For some, this brought liberation. Others were not so lucky. They were marched towards the Baltic Sea, where Nazis were said to be using POWs as human shields and hostages. It was later estimated that a large number of POWs had marched over five hundred miles by the time they were liberated, and some had walked nearly a thousand miles.

New Zealander Norman Jardine[8] explained how, once liberated, his group of POWs were given a revolver by a U.S. Army officer and told to shoot any guards who had treated them unfairly. He stated that "We did!"

On 4 May 1945 RAF Bomber Command implemented Operation Exodus, and the first prisoners of war were repatriated by air. Bomber Command flew 2,900 sorties over the next 23 days, carrying 72,500 prisoners of war.

Total number of deaths[edit]

The total number of US POWs in Germany was in the region of 93,000-94,000 and official sources claim that 1,121 died. The British Commonwealth total was close to 180,000 and while no accurate records exist, if a similar casualty rate is assumed, the number who died would be around 2,200. Therefore, according to a report by the US Department of Veterans' Affairs, almost 3,500 US and Commonwealth POWs died as a result of the marches.[9] It is possible that some of these deaths occurred before the death marches, but the marches would have claimed the vast majority.

Other estimates vary greatly, with one magazine for former POWs putting the number of deaths from the Gross Tychow march alone at 1,500.[10] A senior YMCA official closely involved with the POW camps put the number of Commonwealth and American POW deaths at 8,348 between September 1944 and May 1945.[11]

It is possible to get an impression of the casualty rate among British Commonwealth POWs from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.[12] The casualties of the March who have a known grave may well have been reburied in the larger war cemeteries in Germany. In cemeteries away from the line of advance of Commonwealth troops, army (as opposed to air force) casualties from January 1945 onwards have a high chance of representing POWs who died on the March.[13] For POW casualties with no known graves, their names should appear on a campaign memorial, such as the Dunkirk Memorial[14] and the date of death suggests whether or not it occurred on the March. Army casualties in 1945 that are buried at Durnbach, the Berlin 1939-1945 War Cemetery or which appear on the Dunkirk Memorial total 469 - clearly this excludes RAF and Naval personnel, POWs buried in other cemeteries, or those with unknown graves who were taken prisoner in other campaigns. This appears consistent with the 2,200 estimated total shown above.

Blame for the marches[edit]

SS Generalleutnant Gottlob Berger, who was put in charge of POW camps in 1944, was arrested and put on trial in the Ministries Trial in 1947. In 1949 there was an attempt to assign blame for the marches against Berger and the indictment read:

that between September 1944 and May 1945, hundreds of thousands of American and Allied prisons of war were compelled to undertake forced marches in severe weather without adequate rest, shelter, food, clothing and medical supplies; and that such forced marches, conducted under the authority of the defendant Berger, chief of Prisoner-of-War Affairs, resulted in great privation and deaths to many thousands of prisoners.[15]

Berger argued that it was in fact the Germans' duty under the 1929 Geneva Convention to remove POWs from a potential combat zone, as long as it did not put their lives in even greater danger. He also claimed that the rapid advance of the Red Army had surprised the Germans, who had planned to transport the POWs by train. He stated that he had protested against the decision made by Hitler. According to Berger, he was "without power or authority to countermand or avoid the order". He was acquitted due to these statements and the lack of eyewitness evidence—most ex-POWs were completely unaware of the trial taking place.[3]

However, in 1949, Berger was convicted for his role in the genocide of European Jews and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The sentence was reduced to 10 years in 1951 because of his refusal to kill the "Prominente" (famous or high-ranking Allied officers), who were held at Oflag IV-C (Colditz Castle), despite direct orders from Hitler. He had helped these prisoners escape by moving them to Bavaria and then to Austria where he met with them twice before they were returned to American forces. Berger claimed that he had saved the Prominente from Gestapo head Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who had sent agents to kill them.

After the war, Berger claimed that Hitler had wanted more shootings of prisoners and more punishments, but that he had resisted this. In 1948, Berger gave details to an American judge in Nuremberg of Hitler's plans to hold 35,000 Allied prisoners hostage in a 'last redoubt' in the Bavarian mountains. If a peace deal was not forthcoming, Hitler had ordered that the hostages were to be executed. Berger claimed that on 22 April 1945 Hitler had signed orders to this effect and these were passed to him by Eva Braun but he decided to stall and not carry out the order.

Berger also claimed that he had opposed a plan, proposed by the Luftwaffe and approved by Hitler, to set up special POW camps for Commonwealth and American airmen in the centre of large German cities to act as human shields against Allied bombing raids. Berger realized that this would contravene the Geneva Convention and argued that there was not enough barbed wire. As a result, this plan was not implemented.[16] Berger was released from prison in 1951 and died in 1975.

Timeline of POW evacuations[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Lamsdorf Death March 1945", RAF Warrant Officer Joseph Fusniak, BEM (compiled by Richard Fusniak)
  2. ^ Chris Christiansen - Seven Years amongst Prisoners of War, trans. Egede Winther, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994.
  3. ^ a b c d The Last Escape - John Nichol, Tony Rennell - 2002 Penguin UK
  4. ^ a b http://51hd.co.uk/pow/henry_owens_baltic_march
  5. ^ World War II forum discussion mentioning Gresse friendly-fire incident & sources
  6. ^ Victor F. Gammon. Not All Glory: True Accounts of RAF Airmen Taken Prisoner in Europe, 1939-45. 
  7. ^ "List of British personnel killed by low flying a/c at Gresse, on April 19th, 1945. Interred at Gresse churchyard on April 19th and 20th, 1945" and "List of men taken to hospital with injuries following a/c attack at Gresse" from the Canadian Department of National Defence's Directorate of Military History
  8. ^ Norman Jardine's diary of a forced march (New Zealand History Online)
  9. ^ Annual report of the DVA Advisory Committee on Former Prisoners of War, in cooperation with the Department of Defense, 1999.
  10. ^ John Frisbee & George Guderley, "Lest We Forget", Air Force Magazine, September 1997.
  11. ^ Chris Christiansen, Seven Years amongst Prisoners of War, trans. Egede Winther Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994.
  12. ^ http://www.cwgc.org/
  13. ^ for example http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/2081150/BERLIN%201939-1945%20WAR%20CEMETERY and http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/2008700/DURNBACH%20WAR%20CEMETERY
  14. ^ http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/2082800/DUNKIRK%20MEMORIAL
  15. ^ Trials of War criminals before the Nuernberg [sic] Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No 10, Vol. XIII (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1952
  16. ^ Berger statement to Allied intelligence officers, Nuremberg, 19 October 1945

Bibliography[edit]

  • For You The War Is Over by Sam Kydd - Futura, London, 1974.
  • The Last Escape by Nichol and Rennell - Viking, New York, 2003.
  • Of Stirlings and Stalags: an air-gunner's tale - WE 'Bill' Goodman - PublishNation, London, 2013.

External links[edit]