POWs prepare to evacuate Stalag Luft III

General view of the huts and compound at Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, scene of the 'Great Escape' in 1944.
General view of the huts and compound at Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp, scene of the ‘Great Escape’ in 1944.

The easternmost Prisoner of War camps were already being evacuated and the prisoners forced out onto the roads for the march westwards. Further west there were more groups of camps waiting for the Germans to make a decision as to whether or when they should be evacuated. But the rapid advance of the Red Army was causing great uncertainty.

In Stalag Luft III, site of the ‘Great Escape’, Canadian Flight Lieutenant Robert Buckham, artist and camp forger, was busily preparing to depart. He had been a prisoner since being shot down in April 1943. They were all suffering from hunger as the food situation got much worse. The only thing keeping many men going were the Red Cross parcels, the relatively high calorie food provided in these was going to prove a life saver for many men over the next few months:

25 January 1945

The camp is tense tonight. The Russians are but forty-six miles distant at Steinau, west of the Oder River. This morning a long low rumble lasting for a half-minute was identified as gunfire.

Our most recent news broadcast at 4 pm today is likely twelve hours old, and the Russian pace is fast. Tomorrow could be our day. We are prepared to pack immediately. Backsacks and packboards are in major production throughout the camp, the latter being supervised by ex-mountie Rod Ball, who became thoroughly familiar with them in the Arctic.

Iron ration is being prepared as well. This is a ‘dry’ cake, made with finely ground pilot biscuits, chocolate powder, raisins, prunes (pitted), and black-bread crumbs. These ingredients are mixed with warm margarine which hardens as it cools. The finished product not only has the appearance of chewing tobacco but resembles it in other ways also.

We ate potato peelings for lunch, once again, although the selection has narrowed considerably, after which we received a further bread ration. This is considered to be significant. Apart from the tension, our energies have been spent by trudging seven circuits. Twice around is considered to be about a mile.

A near-panic was caused tonight by an unconfirmed rumour that the goons were actually pulling out and leaving us behind. There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Allied Airforce POWs in the several compounds in this area and some conjecture has arisen that the Russians will arm us and order a common advance against the Germans. As Eliza said, ‘Not bloody likely!’

27 January

It is 1:30 pm. We have been waiting to leave camp for over two hours. A breathless runner read the German order to us at 8:30 pm. We were to be ready to march in one hour. A moment of disbelief was immediately followed by a reaction verging on panic. Lockers were stripped. Duffle bags were stuffed to the overflow, impacked, and packed again.

At 9:30 a runner announced a delay of half an hour… Two hours later the room is a shambles. Torn bedding, broken glass, splintered bunks, discarded clothing and boots, overturned stools, chairs, and table…

See Robert Buckham: Forced March to Freedom

The Daily Telegraph has an obituary of Robert Buckham.

A POWs map of the 'death march' from eastern Poland to the west.
A POWs map of the ‘death march’ from eastern Poland to the west.

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