65 years ago this winter thousands upon thousands of people were on the move all over Germany and occupied Europe. As the Third Reich crumbled under the allied onslaught from East and West, the Nazi state attempted to move its prisoners back into the German homeland. In the harshest winter for many years, thousands died or were killed.
This week a group of relatives and young RAF recruits are recreating the march made by RAF Prisoners of War from Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Poland into Germany in the winter of 1944 and 1945. Temperatures were between -22 and -25 degrees centigrade. Most of the men had very minimal clothing. It was snowing most of the time. Some men fell out from the march and were shot by the guards. Sometimes the Prisoners slept in buildings, other times in the open. German civilians treated them in a variety of ways – some were kind, whilst others threw stones at the airmen.
At the same time my own Granddad, who had been captured at Arnhem, was being marched across Germany from Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel to Stalag IIIA near Luckenwalde, south of Berlin. But most men were being marched westwards, away from the advancing Red Army. Why? Well, its hard to explain just how chaotic the Nazi state was, especially near the end of the war. It might have been easier for the Germans to leave the POW’s to be liberated. But they may have planned to use them as hostages, or to liquidate them. At any point a rash order from Hitler or Himmler might have spelt doom. But whatever the reason, too many men died needlessly.
Andy Wiseman, an RAF veteran of the Long March from Stalag Luft III had these illuminating words to say about his expriences on the BBC website:
“What the long march taught me, and I go on long marches with current RAF people, is that cometh the hour cometh the man. There is no such thing “I can’t do it” there is no such thing “its impossible”. Have a go and you’d be amazed what you can do. If you see a barrier, don’t turn around and pretend it isn’t there, you’ve got to get over it or under it, there’s no other way of living.”
The Last Escape, by John Nichol and Tony Rennell, tells the story of the long marches very well.