The Long March
Eric W Hookings - Pilot
RAF Ex-POW Association
Stalag Luft III, Sagan
There were four compounds in Stalag Luft III, Sagan - North, South, East and West, all identical and each housing about 2,000 men. I was in the North compound before being transferred to Belaria - a sub-camp of Stalag Luft III some five miles away from Sagan.
It was from Stalag Luft III Sagan that many attempts were made by prisoners to escape by tunnelling under the huts and attempting to reach beyond the perimeter wire. These frantic, courageous, endeavours, fuelled by frustration and desperation to get back home to continue the fight against Hitler's tyranny were costly. The most famed attempt to break out, where most of those recaptured were shot in cold blood on the orders of the Fuhrer in contravention of the Geneva Convention, was later depicted in the film The Great Escape.
The March begins
By the end of January we had heard that Russian forces were advancing from the East but we had no idea where they were or how soon we would be released. However, we were to soon discover that our repatriation was not the intention of our captors when, in the middle of the night, we were awoken from fitful slumber by shouts of "Achtung! Achtung! Raus! Raus! Schnell! Schnell!" and we were forced from our bunks at bayonet point.
We were told to collect our belongings and assemble outside the huts. Belongings - I had so very little, a few scraps of food, my malodorous long johns that I was wearing, my greatcoat, my invaluable flying boots which, fortunately had been a new issue, and a bundle of newspaper that was left over from my attempts to make Christmas trimmings. How little did I realise when gathering these pieces of old German newsprint that these would probably save my life!
We assembled shivering, outside the huts with our meagre belongings and I was handed a Red Cross parcel - one of the many that had been hoarded by the Germans - possibly for their own use? Considered to be quite a newcomer by my fellow inmates, some of whom had been incarcerated since 1940, I had assembled very little, but they had made sledges upon which they placed their motley collection of what they considered to be their valued treasures.
Where were we going? We knew we were marched off in a south-westerly direction. What was the reason for our sudden departure? To escape advancing Russian armies. Why were we being forced to leave the camps? So that we could be used by the Germans as protective shields and bargaining assets, for the Germans, in early 1945, were becoming desperate to save their own individual lives.
We two thousand or so souls from Stalag Luft III Belaria trudged aimlessly for what seemed ages through deep snow and biting winds; before too long, we realised that we had been joined by prisoners from the other camps. Thousands and thousands of men of all ages, states of poor health and from far flung corners of the world - British, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans, Polish and many other nationalities, were herded into long columns, slowly and silently trudging through that terrible wasteland of frozen white expanse not knowing where we were going, or even if we could survive another day, let alone to see the end of the War.
At around three o'clock in the following afternoon with temperatures dropping even lower and with darkness falling we stopped trudging and were herded into a farm that offered some form of shelter in its great barns. I had become separated from some of my fellow hut companions but along with 500 or so others I was put into a large one-storey barn where the farmer, under forced directions of our guards, had thrown in some straw bales which we instantly spread around to curl up upon.
Our only food was that which was in the treasured Red Cross parcels - but much of that was in tins and we had no means of opening them! We ate raisins, a little chocolate and biscuits. There was nothing to drink but, it was food - we were very hungry and exhausted and before long, trying to sleep, curling up together for what little warmth we could make.
I was woken from a fitful sleep next morning by lowing cattle. I was cold, hungry, thirsty and filled with trepidation as to what was going to happen. The doors burst open, our guards marched in and ordered us at gun point to re-form those long colums and once again start marching.
For the next eight hours we trudged through that ever-deepening snow. We dared not stop for to do so would encounter the wrath of a guard or be to our own detriment - to slowly freeze and be totally unable to get up and start walking again. We had a small handcart and along with my fellow prisoners, I helped to pull it along. Those men who were sick, injured, frostbitten or plain exhausted took turns to rest and fitfully doze on the handcart.
Wing Commander Stanford Tuck
One of my companions helping to pull the cart Wing Commander Stanford Tuck - renowned for his bravery, escaping and literary skills. Unbeknown to me he was planning his escape: as a fluent Russian linguist he and his Polish friend were the only men who could do so safely.
At about three o'clock on the second day we again were herded into more barns, this time I discovered one housing cows and I knew I had to get near to those animals for my own survival - they offered warmth and although very smelly I was beyond caring.
Day three dawned and depression was rife, we had very little sleep because of the cold. We were bitterly cold, hungry and very thirsty, some of us suffering from frostbite. For indeterminate hours we trudged without stopping through blinding snowstorms, not knowing where we were nor where we were going. Again around three o'clock in the falling darkness, we arrived at another barn and made toward the animals - only this time they were pigs. The pigs were moved out to make way for us and the stench was sickening, but who cared?
Wing Commander Tuck was near to me that night and he asked a small group of us close by to pile the straw into a corner to ensure he and his Polish companion were fully covered . It was their intention to try their escape. We were herded from our barns early next day, leaving our two hidden prisoners behind. It was not until the war ended that we learned they had got out of the barn unseen and had made their way across Poland to meet up with the Russians who were advancing fast from the east. They eventually reached Odessa and thence back to the UK.
The marshalling yards
I lost track of the hours, days and nights that we journeyed across Poland and into Germany but, eventually we reached what I thought to be a small town. It turned out to be the city of Spenbergh which had the biggest marshalling yards in Germany. The columns of men congregated in those marshalling yards. There were thousands of us, all dirty, unkempt and hungry but, we were not alone, for also there were German soldiers of the Panzer Divisions who had returned from the Russian front, the majority of whom were wounded and in a terrible state.
They, like us were in a state of limbo, not knowing where we were going or what was to happen to us. They also had been fighting for their country and we all had now one common aim - to get back home to our families - if we still had them ! We soon realised that these men had no fight left in them, for like us they were not only sick and injured but utterly demoralised and homesick too - but - they did have one thing that we did not have - FOOD.
They had food, but we had still some cigarettes and before long there was bartering and exchanges that lead to talking, swapping experiences and a strange feeling of similarity. These men were not the cruel Gestapo or those in charge of POW camps or their goons. They were like us, ordinary men who were just serving their country and who wanted to go home. The horrors that they had experienced fighting in the bitter cold of the Russian front and the total waste of life they had seen had left them traumatised beyond understanding.
The German Commander of the area, a bloated arrogant man, had two geese that were kept in a cage - obviously for him and his fellow officers' dinner. Of course one night the inevitable happened - the geese disappeared. Where to, only those who had committed the mysterious robbery knew but, there were 10,000 or so prisoners in those marshalling yards who were crowded together and whosoever had taken them, did not offer to share the meal!
The Commander was needless to say absolutely furious and he demanded compensation and retribution, threatening to shoot us individually until he was satisfied. Our Senior British Officer called us to assemble and told us that compensation was being demanded. What did we have to compensate those geese? We would all have loved to have enjoyed a taste. Our only bargaining power was the cigarettes that some of us still had. Consequently collections were made for all to give as many as possible to appease the Commander and I, being a non smoker, had to contribute what I had.
Into cattle trucks
Eventually we were marched down to the goods trains that were waiting in a nearby railway sidings and were herded into cattle trucks. Forty five to fifty of us were pushed and crammed into a small truck, where the only ventilation was that of the small grille high in a corner. Also in a corner near to the doors was a slop bucket.
Ten days I spent in that foul smelling hell-hole, it was deprivation at its very worst. Dysentery was rife, we were unable to lie down and sleep was nigh impossible. The journey was full of stops and starts to let German troop trains go by, giving us the opportunity to at least have the doors open although we were never allowed outside, being constantly guarded by armed guards who looked only too keen to shoot us.
The only blessing was that here the engines would be refilled with water and sometimes a little would be given to us. It was a terrible journey, we were bitterly cold, starving and completely despondent. I never thought I would be pleased to see another POW camp, but we eventually arrived at Stalag Luft IIIA, Luchenwalde, south of Berlin. As we trudged from the railway I had my first glimmer of hope that I could sleep, eat and clean myself, although not necessarily in that order.
Stalag Luft IIIA, Luchenwalde, south of Berlin
The camp at Luchenwalde was basic although dry and quite clean. It consisted of long dormitories each filled with three-tiered bunks into which we fell exhausted. We were soon to discover there were no facilities for toilets and washing and it was very much down to the basics, building our own latrines. I had to wash my clothes which by now were pretty rancid. Eventually, finding a cold water tap I proceeded to strip off and rinse myself down and scrub at my green long johns. I did my best and hung them out on a hastily prepared line but - in those sub-zero temperatures it took many days to get them dry, eventually after hanging them around the stove in the centre of the hut. I was forced to put them under my straw palliasse mattress in the hope that one day I could wear them again. I still can see those pale, ghostly green long johns hanging stiffly on the line.
I befriended a fellow POW - Alan Tustin - who shared the billet. He was a Flight Lieutenant engineer whose Lancaster had been strafed whilst on the Peenemunde raid, in the Baltic. His Lanc had exploded and he was the only survivor. Alan was suffering badly from yellow jaundice and was completely incapacitated. The only food that he could eat was rice and potatoes and I scrounged and bartered all I had to keep him alive. We became very good friends - a friendship that lasted for years to come.
Rumours were rife that we were winning the war but, in a camp that now contained over 40,000 men of different nationalities, who could ever know what was the truth ? The camp was attacked by German fighters which flew low over the camp shooting at anything that moved. One day we realised that out hut was in the firing line and, jumping down from my top bunk I caught my leg on a protruding nail and ripped it open. It took some time to heal, probably due to my unhealthy body and the lack of any medication.
We were imprisoned in that camp for four months, February until the end of May 1945 but we did not accept our incarceration lightly. Many officers tried to escape - myself and Alan included. We became aware of the agitation and insecurity of our guards who were edgy and threatening and, fearing that we would suffer the same fate as the 50 Stalag Luft III officers who were shot, we decided to make a break for freedom.
Discovering a break in the wire fencing - probably cut by other escapees, late one night after stashing what little food we could carry and wrapping ourselves in the warmest things we could find, we made our way stealthily across the camp to that hole in the wire. The tension of knowing that we would be shot if we were caught in those probing searchlights brought us out in a cold sweat but we were desperate and fear drove us on. We got through the wire and, guided by the little compass that Alan had hoarded throughout his incarceration, we made our way westward to where we knew the Allies would be approaching. We could see the flash of guns and could hear the explosions in the far distance and knew that must be our goal, as we trudged throughout that night.
Dawn eventually broke and we saw in the distance an old farm house and knew that we must make our way there for our own safety. We were in the wilds of Germany, there were no roads, only fields and narrow lanes and no sign of life whatsoever but that farmhouse could mean food and our spirits rose with the thought. We approached the farm very cautiously for we were aware that armed troops may be inside watching us, but our fears were soon allayed when we discovered the place was deserted - or so we thought.
The doors of the derelict hovel were open and as we moved in I saw a movement in a corner but, to my amazement it was not soldiers, but a frail, elderly, terrified couple who were cringing there with their hands in the air babbling for mercy. Without really thinking straight I put my hand into the pocket of my greatcoat and pretending I had a gun I shouted at them "Essen, Essen". I must have looked like Jimmy Cagney standing there threatening those poor souls, they had nothing - but I had obviously seen too many gangster films to have acted as I did.
We searched their house but there really was nothing to eat and they were starving, but we heard chickens cackling in the centre of the farmyard. Running toward the noise we discovered the biggest dung heap steaming in the middle of the yard atop which were dozens of real live chickens! Food at last! We ran toward the stinking heap not caring where we trod but those wily old birds were too smart for us. We chased them up the heap, round the heap and eventually through the heap but I - being me - fell over right into the muck and emerged not quite smelling of Evening in Paris. I was covered in dung once again and stank to high heaven BUT I had caught a chicken!
Now all we had to do was kill it and cook it. I handed the scrawny old bird to Alan who looked at me in amazement. "I can't kill it" he said. "But neither can I" I replied and staring at each other, looking and feeling quite flummoxed, I tucked the chicken into my greatcoat and we set off to seek food elsewhere and to find our way to God knew where.
"Safer back at the camp, the German guards have fled"
We eventually found our way onto a small lane when suddenly we heard and saw a type of jeep racing toward us. Thinking they were Germans we knew our time was up, for we would be shot on sight but, the Gods were watching over us and we discovered they were high ranking Russian officers who spoke English. They told us if we had continued along this lane we would certainly have been recaptured and shot but, they explained, our safest bet was to get into their vehicle and they would return us to Luchenwalde camp which was had fallen into Russian hands.
Realising our lives must be blessed we did just that and so we returned to the place that we had so hopefully escaped from two or three nights before. Our German guards had fled and the whole camp of forty thousand men of mixed nationalities, were all being held prisoners by the Russians. For the Poles, Slavs, Czechoslovakians and other eastern European countries this was terrifying and probably meant a certain death, but for the British prisoners, our main fear was that we were to be transported to the salt mines of Siberia.
Under the Russians
Our arrival at the camp was greeted with cheers and hugs from our dormitory pals but suddenly we seemed to have acquired lots more friends - word had got out that I had a chicken and volunteers to kill, pluck and cook that poor old bird that had been inside my coat for 48 hours were extensive. I think Alan and I finished up with half a wing and the wishbone!
The change in our captors, from Germans to Russians led everyone to assume we would soon be repatriated and to the delight of all prisoners ninety three large American lorries appeared outside the gates. But it was not be, for the idea was not to repatriate but to feed the starving inmates. Groups of prisoners were selected to form foraging parties and it was they that boarded the lorries. They travelled miles searching for anything that was edible from sheep and cows to vegetables, which were bought back to the camp to be turned into soup, which was the only way to feed the forty or so thousand desperately hungry souls.
Food in our bellies brought much comfort but any feelings of elation were soon descended into despair when we saw those lorries disappearing without prisoners on board. What was to become of us? Would we be sent to Siberia? Was a salt mine our destination? Would another long forced march be our fate? Depression was widespread. Should we just walk out of the camp? The sight of those heavily armed Russian soldiers put paid to that idea, but if we staged a mass break out then surely some must survive?
The calm composure of our Senior British Officer put paid to such ideas and we were told that the Russian army were our allies and he felt certain that repatriation was imminent. For us to break out of the camp whilst there were still pockets of Germans who were fighting for their lives would be totally foolhardy.
We remained in that state of limbo for two or more weeks before we suddenly realised that a huge fleet of empty lorries emblazoned with the Red Star was outside the camp. They had come to take us away - but to where - east to Russia or west for home? We did not know. We thanked God when we were told it was West!
Those who had possessions grabbed them quickly, but for me - I had nothing except the clothes on my back and along with my comrades I joined the queues ready to board one of those now most welcome lorries. We were taken to the eastern banks of the river Elbe, the demarcation line between Russian and American armies.
Told to get off the lorries, we respectfully bade farewell to our Russian comrades. We were then marched across a pontoon bridge to be welcomed by the Americans. I have never been greeted so enthusiastically as I was by those American troops. They had assembled many trucks into which we gladly climbed, going to Halle airbase and from there we were flown to Brussels in a DC3s.
For me the experience was traumatic, for my last flight had been pretty horrendous. That flight brought home to me the reality of war. My ops had always been at night and I had not seen the damage that was widespread throughout the Ruhr valley. There were no buildings untouched, the majority were just ruins and rubble and as we were flying at only 1,000 feet and the day was clear and bright, I was filled with a sense of anguish and remorse. I had been part of this carnage and destruction - but I dreaded to think what I might find when I got home to London.
Thousands of us prisoners of war were transported over the next few weeks and for me it was pure euphoria, I was free, I had no guard watching my every move, there was food - wonderful food. The mixture of people who were there for us, the Royal Air Force and Belgians were so kind and comforting to us all. We were fed - fresh tasty food that I had almost forgotten, I was in heaven.
The next item on the agenda was a programme of intense personal cleaning. We were de-loused (we were pretty flea bitten), we showered, letting the hot water cascade over our emaciated bodies and then given new uniforms which for me consisted an RAF battledress and trousers. Our old rags which we had worn for so much time were then burnt.
I had to say goodbye to my long johns!
Links & Notes
Long March Memorial http://www.rafinfo.org.uk/rafexpow/rafexpow_longmarch_mem.html
The Great Escape http://www.elsham.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/gt_esc/index.html
Belaria - The Other Stalag Luft III http://www.axpow.org/stories-belaria.htm
Wg Cdr Robert Stanford Tuck DSO, DFC**, AFC http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stanford_Tuck
page last updated 15 July 2010: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010