The Devil's March
We sorted out all of our things in order to carry as much as we could. We had kit-bags or haversacks, many of which we had made ourselves. I had two German haversacks that I had pinched at some time and I gave one to Phil and kept the other. I also had a small German knapsack that I tied to my belt. Early on the 20th we loaded ourselves up and mustered outside and then left. We passed the civilians who were all preparing to leave and I saw Lena, but not to say goodbye. I waved and she waved back but she never smiled and I expect they were wondering what was going to happen to them. The roads were covered in frozen snow and were very slippery and made it difficult to walk with all our kit. We soon realised that we had too much to carry and started to throw things away that we thought we wouldn’t need. I was carrying the accordion and that was the first thing that I got rid of. It was a beautiful instrument, and I was very sorry to part with it, but there was no way that I could lug that around.
We stopped at a farm on the first night after covering about thirty five miles. Straight away we went on the scrounge for some wood to make sledges, or something that we could load things on to and pull along on the ice and snow. Cas came back with a horse and sleigh. God knows where he got it from but the guards said he could keep it and take it with him as long as he looked after it. They then put some of their belongings on it with his.
We split up into parties of about six men and each carried different items. When we stopped during the day this allowed us to get a fire going and have a hot drink with as little delay as possible. One had the wood, another the tea, another the milk etc. We made a small stove from one of the Canadian Klim tins which were about four inches in diameter and three in depth. It was an ingenious device and would boil snow in about six minutes, using very little wood.
We had to make a start very early the next morning when, all of a sudden, the guards were shouting and swearing and forcing us on; they seemed to be in a near panic. We could hear the guns of the armies behind us now and we thought that they must be coming up fast. It was easier with the home made sledges, but still difficult going on so slippery a surface. To make it worse the guards kept us almost at the run now. We marched all that day, all night and all the next day with only a few very short stops. The guards were going mad now, shouting all the time, and anyone falling behind, they shot. It was hell and we were nearly dropping by the time we halted for the night. We were too tired to make a hot drink and have something out of our food parcels. We knew that we wouldn’t last long at this rate as we were not being given anything to eat.
It seemed as if we had only just dropped off to sleep when we were chased out again. It was only about three or four hours and then we were on the march again, stumbling along on the slippery surface. We hardly knew how to put one foot in front of the other as it took most of our time to stay upright. We could still hear the guns faintly in the distance. We arrived at a very wide river, the Vistula, and it was frozen solid. The German army was there, urging us across, as they were going to blow it up. We crossed the ice and after we had gone about three miles we heard it go up. It went on, in the distance, up and down the river. This was, apparently, to hold up the Russians for a while.
The guards were very shaky now and we didn’t try to converse with them at all as they would shoot on any pretext. It was snowing heavily all the time and was bitterly cold. This was the worst forced march I had ever been on and the weather couldn’t have been worse. After a time all thoughts seemed to go from our minds and we just kept going, numb, both inside and out. Our one aim was to keep moving. At one time we stopped, for something or other, for about half an hour, right outside a farm house. After the usual scramble to get a fire going under our stove and having a hot drink, three of us slipped around the back and pinched three hens. They made a noise but nobody came out. That night we stopped and we cooked them in little pieces on our stove – they went down lovely!
Each day we made an early start with our clothes wet through and bitterly cold. We marched about thirty miles a day, but it seemed more like twice that as we could only take short steps on the slippery surface and often fell. Sometimes we would hear shots behind us and wonder who had been shot. We would look around to see if our little party was still intact and no one was missing. At one stop Phil came up with a cigarette he had got from somewhere and shared it around. He said “take it easy!” and I did, as I went out like a light for a few moments. By now our food was getting very short. We caught up with a lot of refugees on the road. They were a pitiful looking lot but we didn’t feel any sympathy for them at the time. They were mostly women, children and older people and probably didn’t want the war anyway, but I couldn’t forget what the French and Belgian people went through on the roads in 1940.
By the 30th all our food was gone and, although we have some tea left, we were getting in a bad way. We slept for a few hours each night, mostly in barns and the guards were still pretty rough. We started to slow down a little, partly because we were leaving the Russians behind and partly because we were worn out. We were a very ragged looking lot. I only had the clothes I was standing up in; I had thrown away the entire surplus because I just couldn’t carry it any more. I did have a spare singlet and pants and was trying to save them for when the march ended, if it ever would. I was wearing two balaclavas and a Polish hat, a pair of gloves, a pair of mitts, two pullovers plus my uniform. I had a scarf wound around my face with just my eyes showing and I was still cold!
One day we arrived at an Air Force Stalag [Stalag Luft IV at Tychowo]. It was deserted but we found some American Red Cross food parcels and there were enough for one between four men. They were a god send but I’m afraid they didn’t last long.
On the 5th of February we were plodding on and it was snowing a blizzard and bitterly cold when everything went blank. I vaguely remember the others helping me and then getting me a place on the sleigh. I was in a daze until after we stopped that night. I was in a pretty bad way then and very grateful to my mates who helped me. I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t as they were still shooting any who fell out at the rear. None of my mates were in very good shape themselves. I was lucky we stopped in that farm all the next day and they gave us coffee and watery stew, for a change.
A couple of days after that we spent three nights in the open fields. Bloody hell it was cold. Our six man group huddled together in a row and, every now and again, the outer pair moved to the middle so that we all got a “warm spot” in rotation. Needless to say we didn’t get much sleep. During each night, one or two died of the cold. We were getting very weak and walked like zombies now, thinking of nothing except to keep going. How we did I shall never know but, I suppose, the will to live can be very strong in any circumstances.
We passed one small farm, went around the back and found a rabbit in a hutch. The farmer was still on the farm but I didn’t think he would mind if I borrowed it!! As he wasn’t around I hit it on the back of the neck, stuffed it in my haversack and beat a hasty retreat. I had only gone a few hundred yards when the damn thing started to struggle, so I hit it again and made sure this time. We cut it up into small pieces and cooked it at the next stop and it went down a treat.
On the 14th of February we had spent the night in a barn loft and in the morning the guard came in shouting “Aus-steigen Aus-steigen Los!!” (Get out get out quickly). There was only one ladder to get to the ground and we started to come down it but had to take our turn. That, though, was too slow for the guard who started to get impatient. He started shouting (as only Germans can shout) and then lifted his rifle and started shooting. Derek Rawlings cried out, he had been shot in the back. We didn’t wait for the ladder then but jumped down, by which time Derek had collapsed. He was one of our six. During the night our poor old horse had died so, not being able to pull the sleigh ourselves, we were unable to put Derek on it and we took turns to help him along as best we could. We complained to the guards at the next stop for the night and, much to our surprise, they said he would be taken away for treatment the next day at a Stalag or a hospital. He was in a very bad way the next morning and barely conscious when the wagon came to take him away. I don’t know what happened to him in the end.
We had another two nights in the fields – another two nights of hell. I didn’t know how much more I could take and was feeling bad again. I had dysentery now and that didn’t make it any better. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had given us more food but we got very little and, on some days, none at all. A couple of guards went ahead every day and were supposed to arrange where we were to sleep and arrange food but they certainly didn’t do much of a job. Perhaps they couldn’t as there were so many refugees on the road, mostly on wagons that were piled up with everything but the kitchen sink. They looked very pathetic but at least they weren’t being shot at by planes like the ones we saw in France. I know they didn’t look any worse than us! Sometimes when we stopped for a while we did manage to dig up a few turnips or swedes, but not many as the ground was so hard. We stopped at one small farm and there was nowhere to sleep except for the pig sty. It was already occupied by the residents but we soon had them out and kipped down. That was the only time we were really warm but did it stink!
On the 17th of February we stopped at a farm and two men slipped out somehow. I don’t know how they got out of the barn as it was locked. It was full of hay and some were smoking until we got them to stop; if it had caught fire we would have had no chance at all. In the morning the guards kept us waiting outside for two hours and then told us that they had caught the two men and shot them.
On the 18th we arrived at Netze and went to another farm. It was a terrible place with no food. We were put into a barn but I was in such an awful state that I spent most of the time outside I had dysentery so bad that I had to throw my underpants away, including the spare pair I had been keeping. I’m afraid I didn’t smell like a bed of roses now! I had had about as much as I could take and I doubt that I could have marched any further. In the morning a Medical Officer turned up from somewhere and took the names of all the chronically sick and I was one of them. We were taken to a railway station on the 20th of February and put on a train that arrived at Neubrandenburg at 8:00 pm and were then taken to an American Stalag. [Stalag IIA is listed as situated at Neubrandenburg]. I had been on the march for a month and it was by far and away the worst time since my capture. It was atrocious weather, towards the end barely any food and the guards were in a terrible mood. In some ways they were nearly as badly off as us but they did have food and a covered sleigh in which they took turns to rest. When we had to almost run it was just plain hell and I never want to go through anything like that again – I don’t think I could. In all we did about six hundred miles. It wasn’t ordinary marching, owing to the state of the roads, and we could only shuffle along with short steps, to keep our balance. It was carried out in blizzards for much of the way. The snow was deep when we had to sleep in the fields but on the roads it was flattened hard with all the traffic of Army convoys and refugees. The Army convoys that passed us were not the confident, victorious Army that we saw in France but were silent and grim looking. I suppose we should have been happy to see them like that but I’m afraid we had too many troubles of our own to think of that; it might have passed through our minds but that was all. I was very upset at leaving all my friends, they were a good bunch but I had had to change my friends several times over the previous few years. One thing I had learned over the last month was that when the going gets hard it brings out both the best and the worst in anyone. I couldn’t have had a better lot of mates and they were always there for each other even though it was an effort at times, because everyone was feeling rough.
The March commenced on the 20th of January and continued after I was taken to Stalag IIA. The following places are where we stopped during the course of the journey and there are others which I am unable to give a name to, either because it wasn’t known to me or it was in a field, out in the open.
|German Name (1945)||Modern Polish Name|
(Stalag Luft IV)
We reached Gross Tychowo on or after the 6th of February as the Stalag there was empty. The Stalag had been evacuated on the 6th of February and the prisoners from there had commenced their own march westwards.
My march had finished 25 Kilometres west of Jarmen, at Netz, where we arrived on the 18th of February, before I was evacuated to Stalag IIA. My records show that we had covered a total of 546 Kilometres at the time I left the march.