Memories of Stalag 383
Oh, to be in England
Graphic by Raine
The march was preceded by a picnic. Having got us out of the Stalag by a mixture of threats and entreaties ('Don't let us end with bloodshed!' said the Kommandant) the Germans seemed bewildered what to do with us; so we dumped our kits on the ground, spread out over the fields and started a general brew-up.
The brew-up lasted for hours, and looked like lasting for ever, for if anybody felt less like a hike than we did, it was the Jerry guards.
They seemed to know the war was lost. They grinned their indifference as we tore down a sentry box for fuel, raided and burnt the bunker and went foraging in the neighbourhood for food. They shrugged their shoulders as wheelbarrows, handcarts and bikes were 'won' from nowhere; and they only guffawed and gaped when a four-wheeler cab was dragged from a barn and loaded with baggage and Kriegies.
Nor did they care what was done with the Stalag. The hundreds of fellows still inside the wire were congregated at the fence, laughing their heads off at the clowns on bikes and barrows, the Aussie on the big grey plough horse, the cab and its Scottish cabbies, the looters loaded with sacks and the Derby Day atmosphere generally.
To add their bit to the fun and to help with the blazing bonfires, they threw bedboards and tables, floorboards and doors across the fences, followed by soup bowls, water jugs, blower fires, mattresses - anything to add to the picnic.
And the Huns did nothing about it. They were too busy staring at the sky. The Tactical Air Force of the Yanks was sweeping the district and the roads near the camp were being strafed. A roar of engines from behind the valley ridge, a rattle of machine guns as they raked the near-by roads, a burst of flame and smoke from something on the ground and ... 'Those were Mustangs,' said the knowing.
Whatever they were, they were on our side and it was good to see them. They'd dropped a shower of leaflets round about and we picked some up. 'Why lose your life in the last days of the war?' they read in German, and on the other side were directions for surrender. So we gave them to the guards.
The Jerries seemed impressed. Judging by their manner, the sooner they were prisoners the better they would like it. Meanwhile, though, the Americans weren't here and the S.S. were. The best plan for guards and prisoners alike was to start the march as ordered and see what happened next. Already there were rumours that the Yanks had broken through; already there were stories that the roads ahead were cut. There was no harm in moving on to see.
So at six o'clock the march commenced, and most men joined it willingly. Amused by the festive sort of atmosphere, relishing their freedom from the cage and sure that they could make a break at will, they entered merrily into the move and shelved their escape plans as superfluous.
With 'See you in Blighty' shouts to the stay-behinds and with a parting message to the Kommandant - 'We've been chucked out of better jails than this!' - they picked up their kit, straggled into line and moved slowly up the road, the cab and bikes and barrows going too.
Stalag 383 was soon behind them and the road to 'None-knew-where' stretched right ahead.
By dusk that evening (April 17) the column was well strung out and most men had halted for the night. My own section were in a village some two miles from the Stalag. We parked our kits by a stream, cooked ourselves some supper and afterwards got chatting to some women - the first chance we'd had for several years.
They were refugees from Hungary, the told us, and very scared about the war's approach. Are Americans gangsters? Are their black troops savage? Will they harm our children? - these were the questions that they fired, with pig-tailed little Gretchens clinging to their skirts.
We tried to reassure them. The Americans were coming, soon, we hoped, but they were very decent fellows and would probably bring chocolate for the children. Only the Nazis need be worried now.
All along the village road other Kriegies were chatting similarly, while some were bargaining for bread and others seeking hide-outs in the houses. Brew-up fires were burning by the stream and little groups of men were clustered round them, planning what to do. Should they slip away and go to earth, or should they keep together in the column?
It was a ticklish problem for us all - but the guards decided for us. With startling abruptness they changed their tune. The same jerries who had sauntered thus far with us, laughing as they told us to take it easy, were suddenly a bunch of rampant Huns, splitting the evening calm with shouts of RAUS! jumping on our precious fires, kicking over cans of tea and generally stampeding.
We soon discovered why. Another batch of Huns was just behind us - a batch whose job it was to take us over. Unless the marchers quickly toed the line, their former guards would find themselves in trouble.
Bang... Bang... Bang... went rifles close at hand, and bullets started whistling overhead. No doubt the shots were meant as warnings - and in that case they served their purpose well. We all got our kits on in a hurry, the column started moving with a jerk, the new batch of Huns assumed control and from then on the march had really started. It wasn't quite the picnic that we'd hoped.
The chief snag, apart from the Huns, was kit; and most of us were clinging on to plenty. I, for instance, had a five-foot naval kitbag crammed with books, a slightly smaller kitbag full of clothes, a blanket and a greatcoat rolled together and odds and ends like haversack and bottle. Bert Gilbert, my marching partner, was travelling light, with a mailbag of potatoes as his ballast. Between us on a pole were strung some boxes, mainly full of flour and more potatoes.
Other marchers shouldered packs like wardrobes, determined to get them home or bust; but, besides the lucky few who had baggage carts to help them, there were some who carried only food and blankets. These were ready set to make a break.
Not that their chances now looked bright. The guards were fresh and numerous, the night fairly light; the steep wooded banks on one side of the road were unscalable without noise, and the open fields on the other gave little shelter. Any suspicious move, any sound of breaking twigs, brought quick investigation - and the dogs that helped the Huns were not the type you stroke. Shots zipped through the woods at intervals all night, but we couldn't tell if any found a billet and assumed that some, at least, were German bluff.
For hours without a break the march went on, till our chins were almost banging on our knees and a fellow's boots seemed soled and heeled with lead. Mostly we plodded on in silence, but now and then we'd ask about a halt: and always the answer was the same - 'Noch ein Kilo!'
That 'one more Kilo' was a stale Hun gag - we'd heard it on the march in France and Crete - and even though they'd thought it up themselves, we didn't give them any credit now. We cursed them from the bottom of our hearts.
Those hungry months in bed had taken toll - heavier toll than most of us had thought - but even for the fittest crowd of men that non-stop march would not have been a joke. All along the route men started dumping kit, from greatcoats, packs and blankets to accordeons, and every now and then the guards would rage and scream as some exhausted Kriegie slumped to earth.
At the front of the column it was sometimes possible to put a casualty on a baggage wagon, but at the rear it was a case of his friends carrying him, or of leaving him to the mercy of the round-up Huns. So naturally they'd carry him. That way they knew he'd go on living.
Not till three o'clock came the halt. We reached a biggish field, cordonned off by guards, and guessed that here at last was 'Noch ein Kilo.' The ground was under water and there were bulrushes about, but whether this was a marsh or a feather bed made little difference. We put a blanket down, put a greatcoat on, flopped down right away and went to sleep.
But not for long. In half an hour or so, Hun boots were stirring us, shouts of RAUS! were beating at our ears, and everyone was once more on the move.
The Salzburg bogey slowly grew more solid.
By daylight the position changed again, with the marchers fighting back against the Huns. The element of surprise had gone, the confusion of the night was over and the shouts and random shots no longer bluffed us.
All along the column passed a message, and the Kriegies acted on it to a man. At the first big village on the morning's march they dumped their kits by the roadside, opened up their packs and settled down to breakfast on the spot.
The Huns were taken by surprise. So concerted was the move that most guards thought it had been authorized and just stared blankly at each other. Then, realizing what had happened, they started raving at the prisoners, drawing back their rifle bolts, firing in the air and going through their usual noisy antics.
But no one moved. The Kriegies were determined on a breakfast and nothing short of massacre would shift them now. Nor were the Huns so keen to show their teeth. Acts that were safe enough at night would now be witnessed and remembered - as those who raised their rifle butts were quickly told. Guards who threatened individual prisoners were hustled off by others. 'Der Americans komm ... Nix fergessen!' warned the Kriegies - and a lot of ersatz tempers quietened down.
Finally, Hun officers, saving face, went up and down the column announcing that there would now be a general halt and furiously berating those guards who were still shouting RAUS! from habit. This announcement drew ironic cheers from the Kriegies, and things eased up all round.
The break, the chance to eat and drink and the lovely morning air revived us wonderfully, and we had time to move about and make inquiries. But though rumours that this fellow had been shot or that fellow was missing were plentiful, the only fact we knew was that we were heading for Regensberg on the Danube.
Salzburg and its mountains (where the Nazis were supposed to plan their last stand, with prisoners as their cover) was some two hundred kilos farther on. Some men regarded the Salzburg trap theory as authentic, others dismissed it with a laugh, but most reserved their judgment for a bit, prepared to make a break if necessary but not to risk their lives without good cause.
With the district thick with Nazis, they argued, with the position of the Yanks unknown and with no idea of their line of advance, a fellow should remember those leaflet words: 'Why lose your life in the last days of the war?'
Despite these sober sentiments, soon after the march restarted, there was a good attempt at suicide by one Kriegie who dashed wildly across the field in full view of the guards. They could have shot him down with ease, but instead, regarding him as mad, they contented themselves with chasing him, cornering him in the field and beating him up.
Later, I met him in the dusk and in asking for a light found that he hadn't got a cigarette between his lips after all: his mouth had just been bashed that shape. However, his best friends told him he was lucky.
As a compromise between reckless breaks like that and just being driven by the Huns, most men adopted 'go slow' tactics. They played a sort of leap-frog game, getting ahead in the column, resting till the round-up guards came screaming and then getting ahead for a hundred yards or so and resting again while other stragglers were rounded up. Everybody co-operated in this manoeuvre, so that the column was never moving as a whole and progress slackened down to a crawl.
That evening the tail of the column reached Pielenschule, a pleasant riverside village dominated by a high-walled convent. Planes were strafing the neighbouring roads, but more surprising than the sight of Thunderbolts was the way the van of marchers had made themselves at home. Not only were Kriegies spread luxuriously all over the meadows, but some of them had found themselves Frauleins and were rowing them on the Regen, while others were making social calls on the villagers and bargaining for bread.
The only snag about this charming spot was that the surrounding woods were manned with S.S., which fact had been learnt from the villagers and confirmed by our own scouts.
However, it was generally agreed that this would probably be the last chance anybody had of making a break this side of the Danube, so all over the meadows obvious conspirators could be seen looking at maps, consulting compasses and discarding surplus kit.
Bert and I were joined by some old hutmates in Fred Perry, Frank Moore and John Newby, John (who had managed to keep at large on the island of Crete for a year after its capitulation) was confident that all five of us could hide up somewhere for a couple of weeks, and Fred suggested that the best plan would be to keep on this bank of the Regen and try to double back on its course, hiding by day and travelling by night.
No doubt this was a brainwave; no doubt, too, it had occurred to hundreds; but we had only got as far as the first stage, which was to dump my most precious possessions, when the Huns closed in on everybody, marched us into the convent grounds and locked us up for the night.
Still, this move proved a blessing to the weary and we made ourselves pretty comfortable under the convent trees. Despite the planes overhead, scores of fires were lit, flap-jacks and tea were cooked for supper and, after a long, refreshing sleep, we awoke in the morning wondering optimistically what the day would bring.
The first thing it brought was the S.S. Our Wehrmacht guards got agitated when they saw them and begged us to get moving right away. The S.S., they said, were a vicious lot and their commander was in nasty mood over the way prisoners had fraternized in the village yesterday. He was capable of anything.
We could see that for ourselves and we lost no time in getting on the road. For several kilos the S.S. followed, marching on banks on either side of the road, not shouting but just holding their rifles at the ready and keeping a cold-eyed, malevolent sort of watchfulness over every step we took. They were not bright company; some of them seemed doped; all looked fanatical and there was an 'aura of death' grimness about them that chilled their vicinity. Both we and our guards felt cosier when they finally turned back.
By this time we were on the main road to Regensberg, along with columns of Russians, Italians, Jews, politcal prisoners and pram-pushing refugees. The only traffic passing the other way were occasional German Staff cars and some fat girls on bicycles. These wore Luftwaffe serge slacks - seemingly several pairs each - carried revolvers at the hip and seemed conscious that they looked a trifle odd. Of troop movements we saw no sign.
Late that afternoon we crossed the Danube, marched through much-battered Regensberg and halted on some waste ground near the city. Here some of us got chatting to some guards - and what they had to say made very pleasant hearing.
In effect, they told us that the march was over. Now that we had crossed the Danube, we should just join the general amble south; we should move very slowly; we should mark time for the Americans - and when they came, we wouldn't be more delighted than our guards. They laughed at the idea of reaching Salzburg and told us that only the S.S. were really fighting. The Wehrmacht, they said, had had enough.
We were just drinking this in, when a Feldwebel strode up and barked at the guards that they must not mix with prioners; but instead of moving, the guards went on lolling on the bank and one of the shouted: 'We'll be prisoners ourselves soon - you, too, my friend!'
The Feldwebel screamed something, seized a rifle from another guard, held it at his hip and looked like going berserk, so our party promptly scattered to the winds. No sooner had Bert and I scrambled over the top of the bank than there was a loud explosion and another wild scattering by all around. The bastard's tossed a hand grenade, we thought!
But he hadn't: the explosion was an accident. Some Kriegies had been making a fire on the waste ground when a small bomb, buried in the ground, exploded in their midst. It caused some fearful injuries - as we later were to learn - and it was hellish bad luck for all concerned.
That night the marchers slept in a wood cordonned off by guards, and the following morning set out on the next stage of their journey - a stage which I was not destined to travel.
The column had not gone far along the road when Bert, who had complained of feeling ill, pitched forward on his face and blacked right out. Captain France, the M.O., was near and the outcome of his roadside look at Bert was that I was told to try and get him back to Regensberg - and hospital.
So, feeling rather glum, I watched the marchers disappear, wondering when and where I'd see them next - and hoping that those guards had not been kidding.
As soon as Bert recovered sufficiently to walk, we turned back along the road to Regensberg. Every other yard we were stopped and questioned, so we took the first chance that offered of slipping off the road - into what proved to be the yard of an inn.
Starting a brew-up, we were approached by a woman with a baby in her arms who told us: (a) that they baby was a seven months' child, due to air raid; (b) that she was expecting another child shortly; (c) that there were some wounded prisoners sheltering in her house.
Investigating this last statement, we found that the victims of the explosion yesterday were resting here. One of them was Sgt. Honeyset. His face was completely covered with bandages, except for his lips and nostrils which were terribly burned. He had been blinded by the explosion, but his companion, 'Cracker' King, told us that there was hope that the sight of one eye would be saved eventually. meanwhile, he was bearing his agony heroically, waiting for a chance to get to hospital.
'Cracker,' himself, had been badly pitted and burned about the face, but he could still make a wry cockney joke. 'So you caught it, too, Cracker?' Bert asked him. 'Course I did,' said Cracker. 'I'm his mucker, see? Anyfing comin' to him - I gets 'arf!'
We had just cooled the tea off and were trying to pour some down Honeyset's swollen lips, when the sirens sounded, ack-ack opened up and bombs started falling simultaneously. The woman with the baby and her old mother dropped on their knees, while some small children set up a piteous, hysterical screaming which lasted while the bombs rained down. As soon as the raid was over - it only lasted minutes - the children rushed out gleefully to inspect the damage, while the old woman begged us to put some sign on the roof so that American airmen would not bomb the inn.
Late that afternoon, a handcart arrived from a near-by British working camp and Honeyset was placed carefully in it to be taken to the camp's M.O. We others walked behind the cart and on the way we learnt that men from this working party had been working on the railway when the bombs straddled it. There had been casualties amongst the Kriegies, but how many was not yet known.
At the camp, we were received hospitably by the lads and suspiciously by the Huns, who sent a message that if the non-wounded N.C.O.s were to leave their barn sleeping quarters, even to visit the latrine, the guard would shoot on sight. Fortunately, there were some tins about.
Next morning we heard a volley of shots and, running outside, found that a political prisoner from a group in a near-by field had just been killed. He had made a bolt for freedom and had been picked off a few yards up the road. A barefooted Fraulein who was forking hay in the yard showed less interest than if a rabbit had been shot.
Shortly afterwards came another raid on Regensberg, during which an American bomber was hit by ack-ack. We saw bits of the wreckage floating down and then noticed that three of the crew had baled out. Painted on the roof of the barn were the letters P.o.W. and one airman, seeing this, tried to manoeuvre his chute so as to land in the camp. He failed by yards and fell, rather heavily, in the road outside, Huns rushing up from all directions but not molesting him.
Before he was taken away, he left news that Patton's men were now in Nuremberg, one of the men he spoke with being the Hohenfels actor, Bob Teather, who had landed in the same M.I. room, though from rather different causes.
Bob had made a break from the march, had got well clear of Huns and could have hidden up for weeks - but for an unlucky meal. Eating a doubtful tin of meat he had poisoned himself, and at last, in fearful pain, had had to seek for aid. He was now waiting for a WHITE ANGEL motor wagon which was picking up casualties from the march and taking them elsewhere for attention.
No sooner had Bert been examined by the British M.O. and pronounced a case for hospital than the wagon arrived, in it being Sgt. Honeyset, Cracker King and other Hohenfels men. There was still some room in the wagon, so I was invited to jump in myself and, my prospects otherwise being obscure, I gladly did so.
Our destination was Moosburg, the big Stalag near Munich, and it was there, two days after our arrival, that we next had news of the Hohenfels marchers.
It was grand news, indeed. The marchers' trek was over, they were safely camped near Straubing, WHITE ANGELS were supplying them with parcels, joyful feasts and brew-ups marked their days and, barring intervention by the S.S., they were just sitting pretty till the end.
And the end came very soon. If the Hohenfels men missed the climax that we saw at Moosburg; if they missed the dramatic arrival of the Yanks, the last stand of the S.S. and a fighting finish near the Stalag - well, they didn't miss the joy of liberation.
They were freed at the end of April. They had a fortnight to hug the thought, to go crazy, to sober up and to put on weight. Then, with beer mugs and meerschaums in their kitbags, with scores of pals' addresses in their notebooks and with almost painful eagerness at heart, they left for home.
They were flown by Dakotas to Brussels. They were flown on by Lancasters to Surrey. And the first to greet them back to British soil were the people who'd done most to ease their exile - the Red Cross and Order of St. John.
The Kriegies won't forget that friend in need.
Music : White Cliffs of Dover