As the Allies move east, the refugees move west

Infantry and carriers in the German town of Lingen, 6 April 1945.
Infantry and carriers in the German town of Lingen, 6 April 1945.
Forced Labour Conscription: A group of liberated slave labourers enjoy cigarettes given to them by British paratroopers. The 'SU' painted on their clothes indicates that they are Russians.
Forced Labour Conscription: A group of liberated slave labourers enjoy cigarettes given to them by British paratroopers. The ‘SU’ painted on their clothes indicates that they are Russians.

One aspect of the Nazi treatment of people from their conquered territories might well have attracted more attention, had it not been overshadowed by more sinister discoveries as the war drew to a close. Suddenly as the Allied armies moved into the heart of Germany they discovered the true meaning and scale of the Nazi enslavement of Europe.

Peter White was an officer with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. On the 6th April 1945 they were ordered to forward in motor transport, making a rapid advance to catch up with the 7th Armoured Division that had driven a wedge deep into Germany. The progress was slowed by the volume of traffic coming the other way:

Here at last were some positive clues for us to add to our deductions and rumours as to the military positions. As soon as we got on to this road we began to meet among traffic coming in the opposite direction, waves of motley, liberated personnel.

They came, drunk from the joy of it… and sometimes just plain drunk… on foot, in looted cars and carts or by pushbike, cheering and saluting, Russian, Polish and French Displaced persons and Russian POWs.

For the next 50 to 100 miles this tide of fugitive humanity grew steadily into a torrent. They became the tenor and in many cases the means of the sudden demise of wayside farmers and members of their families on whom they descended at nightfall for food, plunder and often rape.

The squarely built Russian soldiers, as heavy in their appearance as they seemed in their wits, saluted every Allied object that moved, apparently without fail, on roads nose to tail with army transport.

See Peter White: With the Jocks: A Soldier’s Struggle for Europe 1944-45

Journalist Alan Moorehead was also making his way east, just behind the advancing troops:

As soon as we crossed the Rhine we were confronted by a problem almost as big as Germany herself; the millions upon millions of semi-slave workers.

With every mile we went into Germany they grew more numerous on the roads: little groups of Frenchmen, then Dutch, then Belgians and Czechs and Poles and Italians, and finally, in overwhelming majority, the Russians in their bright green uniforms with ‘SU’— Soviet Union – painted in white on their backs.

Half the nationalities of Europe were on the march, all moving blindly westward along the roads, feeling their way by some common instinct towards the British and American lines in the hope of finding food and shelter and transportation there.

These millions lived a vagabond existence. At every bend of the road you came on another group, bundles on their shoulders, trudging along the ditches in order to avoid the passing military traffic.

The Germans were terrified of the Russians. Again and again women ran out to us to cry: ‘Can’t you leave a guard with us? The Russians have taken everything. The next lot will smash up the place if they find nothing.’ More than that the German women feared for themselves. Cases of rape increased. The looting increased. And still that vast moving human frieze kept pouring down the roads, constantly augmenting its numbers with every new town that was captured.

One began to get a new picture of Nazi Germany. VVhat we were seeing was something from the dark ages, the breaking up of a medieval slave state. All the Nazi flags and parades and con- quests in the end were based on this one thing — slave labour. There was something monstrous about the wired-in worker’s compounds and sentry boxes round each factory, something that was in defiance of all accepted ideas of civilization.

As yet, in early April, we had only begun to glimpse the extent and depth of the Nazi terror system, but already one sensed the utter disregard of the value of human life in Germany. And now the Reich was collapsing at its roots because the slaves were melting away.

One saw mostly women in the country towns and in the farms as we passed on; nearly all the German men were either at the front or prisoners or dead. And the slaves were on the road. There was no longer anyone to sow the crop, no one to reap the harvest later on.

Here and there a foreigner chose to remain with his German master. Indeed, on the whole the country labourers got sufficient food and they looked healthy enough. But nothing on earth would have kept the industrial workers in the factories and the mines once the Germans had gone. First they rushed out into the streets to loot. Then they took the road to the west until they drifted into hastily made British and American camps where some attempt was made to sort them out and send them home.

See Alan Moorehead: Eclipse

Prayers are led by a German priest over the graves of 800 slave labourers massacred by the SS at Passau. The American Third Army authorities ordered that the local people be forced to dig individual graves so that each might have a decent burial.
Prayers are led by a German priest over the graves of 800 slave labourers massacred by the SS at Passau. The American Third Army authorities ordered that the local people be forced to dig individual graves so that each might have a decent burial.
Three Russian girls still wearing their slave labour uniforms photographed soon after their arrival at No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre, Hamburg Zoological Gardens.
Three Russian girls still wearing their slave labour uniforms photographed soon after their arrival at No.17 Displaced Persons Assembly Centre, Hamburg Zoological Gardens.

3 thoughts on “As the Allies move east, the refugees move west”

  1. @Lisa

    You are of course entirely correct and you make an important point that we must always remember. However it is the original sources that refer to “Russians” – it was a very common practice to equate the USSR with Russia during the war, and for some time after. We cannot alter what they thought or perceived then but we can bear your point in mind.

  2. Please correct your reference to “Russians” or “Russia.” The designation of “SU”, meant Soviet Union. Many nations were forced to be part of the Soviet Union. Not all were Russians. They were Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonian, Lithuanians, Georgians, and others. And yes, after the war, the Allies stupidly listened to Stalin, and most of these people were forcibly repatriated back to the Soviet Union, where they were arrested, executed, or sent to the Gulags. Sadly, today Putin is trying to glorify Stalin and revive the Soviet Union once again.

  3. I worked with a veteran who was tasked with guarding a displaced persons camp after the war. Most of the eastern Europeans and especially the Russians were forced under gun point to return home. I wonder how many of the captured Russians were executed upon their return and how many were sent to the Gulags?

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