In Germany the Allied forces moving west never knew what they could expect next. There were signs of increasing disorganisation amongst the Germans, yet still significant battles broke out and casualties were taken. The shock generated by the liberation of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen would be repeated in many other camps. And still they were encountering more and more “displaced persons” as hundreds of thousands of forced labourers sought to find a way home.
But it was the liberation of their fellow countrymen from Prisoner of War camps that was to prove especially poignant. War Artist Edward Ardizzone was travelling with the 8th Hussars:
16th April Monday
Up at 5.30. Very cold but fine. Breakfast in the half light by my tank on a fried egg between pieces of bread and a mug of tea. Off almost immediately afterwards. Dawn light very beautiful, with the brew fires of the tanks seen here and there among the trees.
Travel some miles eastward, through the usual alternating forest country and open land. Halt by a clearing and am sent on ahead in a Dingo to C Squadron, which was reaching the big P.O.W. camp Stalag 257, in which over 15,000 of various nationalities were kept.
When I arrived at the first encampment troops had already been there some time. The scene was orderly and quiet, with troops of Airborne Div. acting as N.C.O.S. Many of them had only been prisoners for six to twelve months. It was amusing to see them marching off their warders. Paratroops with red armlets, dull pink berets and clean battledress, gaiters, etc – very smart — many troops French.
Our arrival at the second encampment was very different. There were P.O.W.S who had been there for years and we were the first British soldiers to arrive. They were almost crazy with delight, mobbing our Dingos, asking questions about old friends and all demanding autographs, a very moving scene. It was pleasant to see little groups in the country outside the cage, but many still lined the wire as if out of long habit.
The conditions Prisoners of War varied greatly, only Officers were excused labour under the Geneva convention, those who had been in prison for a long time had endured hard conditions and a poor diet which had debilitated many. Those who had been on the forced marches from the east were in even worse shape.
Sergeant George Guderley had been shot down in his B-17 Bomber in September 1944. He saw the first British Churchill tanks approaching the camp:
… they drove right through the front gate, followed by a couple of Bren- gun carriers. Everyone started hollering, and the soldiers were throwing out rations and cigarettes. I stood well back, just in case. I was damned if I was going to be killed by the very British tank that was setting me free. But then the reality of the situation sank in and it was like New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July, your birthday and the wildest bacchanal you’ve ever been to all rolled into one.
Australian Sergeant Cal Younger:
People were in tears and yelling and screaming. Cheering prisoners surrounded the armoured cars, their arms held above their heads. Half a mile away the war went on. We could hear its sounds coming over the tank’s radio. Germans were resisting in a wood nearby. A tank was sent, and then there was a message that 12 prisoners had been taken and would someone come and collect them. Another report said two cars were racing eastwards, with German senior officers in flight. They were to be headed off . . .
Private Les Allan had been nineteen when his unit of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry had been ordered to hold the perimeter line at Dunkirk in May 1940, sacrificed to let other men escape. He had endured five years of hard labour, had had his jaw broken by a guard for no apparent reason and had then survived the 600 mile forced march from the east, although his feet were permanently damaged from walking all the way in wooden clogs.
I was lying down on the ground when it happened. So were lots of others. We were so weak we couldn’t get up and move. I was in such a dreadful state I had to have food brought to me.
I was leaning on a fence and he came up and asked me how long I had been a prisoner. I said, ‘Five years’, and he told me to go over to a point where there was a box and he said, ‘Sit there.’
So I went over and sat on the box, and four Americans came over with a machine. They put a nozzle up each trouser leg, up each arm, and turned the levers, and the next thing you couldn’t see me for a cloud of white dust. The dust was DDT, and they were defumigating me.
Then they put me in a lorry, and I was taken to a field full of marquees. Inside were long tables, and army cooks came out with dishes full to the brim with potatoes and beef. It was almost impossible to believe it. But then some doctors came in and ordered all the food to be taken away. They said too much food like that would damage us. It was heartbreaking. But they gave us a couple of spoonfuls of potato and gravy, and then we were put on planes. They had been on bombing raids over Germany, and landed on the way back to pick us up and take us to Brussels.
Once back in England Allan was given a new uniform and was back home a remarkably short time later. His neighbours came out of their homes to cheer him as he walked up the road unexpectedly, almost five years since he had been first reported missing. His mother’s hair had turned white overnight when she received that telegram. The joy of his return was overwhelming.
But soon Allan decided to forget about the past and get on with life:
People wanted to know about my experiences as a prisoner of war, but I wouldn’t tell them. Why? Because I had a feeling that they wouldn’t believe it, so consequently I just bottled it up. It might also have been because of a sense of shame about being a prisoner of war — people might ask why I hadn’t escaped. But it was also because I got the impression when I returned home that people believed we had, in effect, been in holiday camps, having a cushy time. That’s why we didn’t want to talk about it. Those who didn’t know said we’d had a good time, that we were lucky to have been prisoners when so many other fellows had been killed.
He met his wife a year later and still did not tell her about his experiences, telling her he had been discharged from the Army as medically unfit.
These POW experiences are amongst many to be found in The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe 1944-45.