With the new Soviet offensive under way the German pretence that the Eastern front could be held quickly evaporated. After all the years of tyranny and murder, from the first Jewish ghettoes in 1940 through to the wanton destruction of the city following the 1944 Uprising, the Germans finally left Warsaw without a fight on the 15th January. One of the few men left in the city to greet the Soviets was Wladyslaw Szpilman who had miraculously survived alone in a wrecked building.
Suddenly hundreds of thousands of people, and very soon, millions of people were on the move. After denying the situation for so long the Nazis finally began to evacuate westward. Nazi propaganda had painted a fearful picture of how the Red Army would treat civilians, so almost anyone with German connections joined the retreat. Alongside them were the inmates of concentration camps, where the merciless ‘death marches’ would prove to be a new method of mass murder. In scarcely better circumstances thousands of prisoners of war also began the trek westward.
Henry Owens had been captured in France in 1940 after the Highland Division was forced to surrender at St Valery. A new ordeal now began for him as he began the ‘1000 Mile’ forced march to the west:
In early January 1945, as the Russians made advances from the Vistula, the Germans decided to withdraw the POWs from the camps. The allies were destroying communications, and the Germans decided to force us out on the march again.
It was pitch dark when we assembled outside the gas works at Elbing, after our guard had warned us that “You are now back in the Front Line, any attempt to escape and you will be shot!” Snow had been falling all day; it must have been at least six inches deep. It was still snowing, and there was a bitterly cold wind, the temperature was well below freezing, around minus 30 degrees Celsius.
Over the years as POWs, we had accumulated extra clothing etc. from parcels sent to us through the Red Cross. We had hurriedly to decide what to leave and what to take, as everything had to be carried by hand. Preference was of course given to the small, built up stock of tinned food and powdered milk. I still had my army kitbag, so I put as much in this as I could carry. As we entered the main road in Elbing, there was evidence of the Russians‟ penetration, bodies lay about in the snow, and German troops dressed in all-white uniforms and heavily armed were moving east past us. It would appear that the Russians had attacked under cover of darkness, shot up the town, and retreated again.
We rendezvoused with other British POWs who had been in prison camps in the Elbing area, and were marched out, apparently making for the Baltic Coast. After marching for some time, we came across a long column of civilian refugees, who had been travelling in high-sided horse drawn wagons loaded with all theirworldly possessions. The column was at a standstill. Apparently they were held up because the crossing over the river Vistula was for the use of military traffic only. How long they had been there I do not know, but many had frozen to death still in their wagons, other bodies lay at the side of the road. They looked like wax dummies. We helped ourselves to any food we could find in these wagons, and marched on and crossed the Vistula towards Danzig.
It was on this section of the march that I faltered. I felt terribly tired, with a sinking feeling, as if the cold had affected my stomach. I sat on one of the abandoned carts and rested. Darky Bryant and other comrades pleaded with me to carry on, otherwise I would freeze to death or be shot. After a short while I recovered my strength, and from that moment, I did not falter for the rest of the march.
We marched nearly all of the first night, eventually stopping at a barn, where we lit fires and melted snow in our dixies, adding milk (klim) to provide a hot drink (no rations were provided by the Germans). The next day we marched on again, with the sound of Russian artillery in the background. As the packs on our backs were too heavy, most of us used makeshift sledges to pull our possessions along. As the days went by we got weaker; the built-up stock of food reserves had gone, we were plagued with lice and dysentery, and frostbitten limbs turned gangrenous. We were sometimes bundled into barns at night, but on at least one occasion we spent the night in an open field with no food at all.
It was not only British POWs on the march. It seemed that the whole of the civilian population of the Baltic States and East Prussia were fleeing from the Russians, some no doubt collaborators who feared for their lives. There were also Russian, French, and POWs of other nationalities. This all added to the food problem. Rationing had obviously broken down, and the Germans could not provide for themselves, even less for the refugees and POWs, these were low priorities. It was tragic to see POWs who had survived the horrific march into captivity from Dunkirk and St. Valery four and a half years previously, going down with dysentery, gangrene, and frostbite, and having to be left behind to die or be shot. There was no backup transport to take away the sick; you just left them behind, hoping they would survive, perhaps in a Russian hospital.
We marched twenty to thirty kilometres a day, with the sound of Russian artillery to our rear. Sometimes we rested for a whole day, and tried to tend our feet and other problems, but there was no remedy for worn out boots. Many carried on the march with rags bound around their feet, and my pal Darky ended the march with a pair of rope sandals.
When we rested for the night in barns etc., we never took off our boots, because we would get them stolen, or our feet would have swollen that much, we would not get them on again.
As far as food went, we only received one hot meal in the four months of our journey. That was beans, which gave most of us the runs. The Germans did, infrequently, give us some black bread and ersatz coffee, but most of the time we lived off our wits, stealing from farms, begging, or offering to supply a note saying that the donor had helped an allied POW with food so that the Russians would not harm them. It worked sometimes.