According to popular myth, Prisoners of War during the Second World War spent most of their time gallantly trying to tunnel out of captivity, goon-baiting or just generally passing the time with a good old sing song and all manner of typically British tally-ho antics.
This may have been true for a very small minority of Prisoners – mainly Air Force Officers, at Colditz or Stalag Luft – but for the vast majority, captivity meant boredom, uncertainty, and survival. And in some cases, untold suffering under extreme conditions, that we are only really beginning to understand today.
As 1944 drew to a close, Germany still held hundreds of thousands of Russian, British, American, French, Polish and many other Prisoners of War. Securing them, keeping them captive, feeding them and looking after them – as they were obliged to under the Geneva Convention – was a huge burden, especially at a time when German civilians and even Soldiers were struggling for food and medicine.
So you would have thought that the Germans would have been very glad to have got these Prisoners off their hands. Not so. In the cynical manner of Nazi policy, various powers that be decided that the POW’s had to be kept hold of at all costs. As a result, thousands upon thousands of men, in appalling conditions and untold brutality, were marched hundreds of miles across Europe in the worst winter for many years. Many never survived to tell the tale. One of the marchers would have been my Grandad, who was captured at Arnhem, and then marched from Stalag XIB in Fallingbostel to Stalag IIIA, near Berlin. Albeit he was going in the opposite direction to most, but still the conditions would have been the same. Understandably he talked very little about it.
Yet this a story that has only been uncovered recently. Immediately after the war, the suffering of POW’s of Japan, and the victims of the Holocaust, all but overshadowed the death marches across Germany in the Winter of 1944 and 1945. And rightly so. But this a story that has to be told and understood. John Nichol – himself a Prisoner of the Iraqis in the first Gulf War after his Tornado was shot down – and Tony Rennell tell it very well indeed. Lets hope that more research is done into this subject very soon.