The beginning of the POWs 1000 mile march west

The destroyed city of Warsaw, January 1945.
The destroyed city of Warsaw, January 1945.

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.

Read the whole of Henry Owens account of life as a POW at 51st Highland Division. Members of the same Scottish regiments were now fully engaged in the bitter cold of the Battle of the Bulge.

A POWs map of the 'death march' from eastern Poland to the west.
A POWs map of one of the ‘death marches’, from Stalag Luft IV in eastern Poland to the west.

US POWs on a boxcar through Germany

American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944
American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944

The Battle of the Bulge was turning into one of the largest battles that the US would ever fight. Eventually they would suffer around 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead, in the space of just over a month.

Several of the Allied commanders were now welcoming the attack, an opportunity to hit the Germans hard if they could just contain them and then attack across the base of the German advance.

For the men in the middle of the battle it was a different story. William F. Meller was in the 110th Regiment, 28th Division. His 11 man section, manning a point just opposite the Siegfried Line, held out for almost 12 hours on the 16th December until, out of ammunition and surrounded, they were forced to surrender.

What followed was a miserable experience, shared with 23,000 other US troops who were taken prisoner:

20 December 1944

The train stops and we all get out. This sorry lump of humanity begins to move, then gradually develops into a group of individuals. As we climb down to the ground, the guards remind us they are watching us. It is getting tougher and tougher climbing in and out of the boxcar. These old civilian guards should be home with their grandchildren, not here, where they might be killed at any moment.

We relieve ourselves, then line up to fill our canteens from a faucet. No one asks if the water is clean or contaminated. No one cares. War is humbling. We have no dignity, look filthy, feel filthy, and we are at the bottom of the pit.

If the Germans are trying to break our morale, it won’t work. We have no morale. The snow—covered mountains around us remain cold and hostile. It has been four days now, and we have been fed nothing.

The genius standing next to me says, “Sarge, they’re not going to shoot us, they don’t have to. We’re going to starve to death.”

“Shut the hell up.” There is no use threatening anyone with punishment or promising violence. No one gives a damn. We just have to tough it out, period.

The German soldiers don’t look much better than we do. Some of them look disabled and some look older. They may have been injured in combat and are now only fit for this type of duty. Most are privates, plus a few noncommissioned officers. None of them look happy to be here.

They seem to be afraid of the American planes. They may be thinking about what would happen if we all jumped them right now. I know we are thinking about it. If we jump them, some of us will be shot. There is no doubt in our minds that we can take them. The problem is that we don’t know where we are. We don’t know how far it is to the American lines. I know we are east of the Rhine River because I saw it last night as we passed over.

The man next to me says, “We ought to jump them.” “Do you want to be the first?” He doesn’t answer.

We are herded back inside. I take a careful look at the train; it’s a long one. I don’t know where the guards ride; it must be in one of their own boxcars. The civilian guards carry old bolt-action rifles, while the soldiers carry submachine guns. I’m not afraid of the rifles, but the submachine guns are something to take seriously. The threats of these weapons keep us in line.

We are back inside. It seems we get out to relieve ourselves only when the train stops because of American planes in the vicinity; in this case, the engine unhooks and heads for the near- est tunnel for protection. The sergeant knows what he is talking about.

See William F. Meller: Bloody Roads to Germany: At Huertgen Forest and the Bulge–an American Soldier’s Courageous Story of World War II

German picture of Americans taken prisoner during their Ardenne offensive.
German picture of Americans taken prisoner during their Ardenne offensive.

SS Kampfgruppe Peiper massacre US troops at Malmedy

 Sepp Dietrich (left, behind Himmler), Heinrich Himmler (center), and Joachim Peiper (right) at Metz in September 1940.
Earlier in the war Peiper had served as a staff officer with Himmler before combat on the Eastern Front. Sepp Dietrich (left, behind Himmler), Heinrich Himmler (center), and Joachim Peiper (right) at Metz in September 1940.

The attack through the Ardennes was a desperate gamble for the Germans. They had stiffened their assault with some very experienced SS units, veterans of the Eastern Front, who could be trusted to fight ruthlessly. One of the these was SS Kampfgruppe Peiper, a 4,000 strong battle group led by 29 year old SS-Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper, that was expected to make a rapid thrust through US lines and seize key positions.

The advance of this Kampfgruppe was not nearly as swift as they had hoped but many who crossed their path were to suffer. They were to be responsible for a series of mass murders of groups of both US POWs and Belgium civilians. It was an attitude to war that was commonplace on the Eastern Front.

The most notorious incident happened on the 17th at the Baugnez Crossroads a couple of miles outside Malmedy.

Ted Paluch was a member of Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, in a lightly armed convoy of jeeps and trucks:

On December 17th we were in Schevenhutte, Germany, and got our orders to go. We were in the First Army; we got our orders to move to the Third Army.

There was a tank column going with us, and they took the northern road and we took the southern road. That would have been something if they had gone with us south. Right before we left, a couple of guys got sick and a couple of trucks dropped out of the convoy, and they were never in the massacre. Also, there were about fifteen sent ahead to give directions and all, and they escaped the massacre.

We had no idea that it was going to happen. We took a turn, like a “T” turn, and the Germans were coming the other way. We were pretty wide open for I guess maybe half a mile, and their artillery stopped our convoy. We just had trucks, and all we carried was carbines. We might have had a machine gun and a bazooka, but that was about it, we were observation.

They stopped the convoy. We got out, and the ditches were close to five or six feet high because I know when I got in it, the road was right up to my eyes. There was a lot of firing, I don’t know what we were firing at or who was firing at anything, but there were a lot of tracer bullets going across the road.

Finally, a tank came down with the SS troopers behind it. They wore black, and on one collar they had a crossbones and skull and the other collar they had lightning. They just got us out, and we went up to the crossroad, and they just searched us there to get anything of value — cigarettes, and I had an extra pair of socks, and my watch, everything like that.

They put us in the field there that was their frontline — ours was two and a half miles away in Malmedy. When we were captured and being brought up there, the people who lived there or in that general area brought up a basket. I guess it was bread or something, and they brought it up to them to eat.

[ 113 US POWs were assembled in the field at the crossroads. It was a cold day but light snow only lay on the ground where it was in shadow. At about 1415 the SS started firing into the group of unarmed men. The initial shooting lasted about 15 minutes.]

Every truck and halftrack that passed fired into the group, and why I didn’t get hit too bad . . . I was in the front, right in the front, the first or second or third right in the front. Each track that came around the corner would fire right into the group in the middle so that they wouldn’t miss anything, that’s why I didn’t get too badly hit.

We laid there for about an hour, maybe two hours. While we were lying there, they come around, and anyone who was hurt, they just fired and would knock them off.

Someone yelled, “Let’s go!” and we took off.

[At this stage it is believed around 60 men were able to run off, including some who were wounded. More would be killed during this escape.]

I went down the road there, there was a break in the hedgerow, and a German that was stationed there at that house came out and took a couple of shots at me, and I got hit in the hand. If he saw me or not I don’t know, he went back and didn’t fire me at me anymore.

I was watching him come, and there was a well, and I went over there. It was all covered up, and I laid down, and there was a little hill right behind where I was, and I just rolled.

I got there, and I started coming in, and I got near a railroad, and I figured it would take us somewhere. I met a guy from my outfit, Bertera, and two other guys—one guy from the 2nd Division, he was shot, and another guy from the 2nd Division. The four of us came in together. It was dark when we got into Malmedy, but we could see some activity.

This account appears in Voices of the Bulge: Untold Stories from Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.

The bodies of those killed now lay in the frozen field in what became no mans land until 14 January, when the US Army recovered the territory. After the war over 70 members of Kampfgruppe Peiper were tried for war crimes and 43 men were sentenced to death. None of the executions were carried out, the sentences being to commuted to life imprisonment. Joachim Peiper was the last to leave prison in 1956.

The 84 bodies of the POWs, covered by snow, were found on 14 January 1945.

Nightmare of the hellship Oryoku Maru continues

On the morning of December 15, 1944, aircraft from the USS Hornet again attacked the Oryoku Maru as it was moving across Subic Bay toward Olongapo Point.  This time one bomb made a direct hit on the hatch of the aft cargo hold killing about 250 POWs. Later that morning the surviving POWs were allowed to jump off and swim to shore.
On the morning of December 15, 1944, aircraft from the USS Hornet again attacked the Oryoku Maru as it was moving across Subic Bay toward Olongapo Point. This time one bomb made a direct hit on the hatch of the aft cargo hold killing about 250 POWs. Later that morning the surviving POWs were allowed to jump off and swim to shore.

The Japanese liner Oryoku Maru, setting out for Japan from the Philippines, had come under repeated attack from US aircraft on the 14th December. The 1600 POWs who were crammed into the stifling heat of the holds had suffered horrific conditions during that day and the following night.

On the morning of the 15th it was realised that the damage to the Oryoku Maru was so great that she could not continue. As the Japanese prepared to abandon ship the POWs were asked to get into groups of 25. They would then be released in these groups and allowed to swim to the nearby shore.

After his ordeal of the previous day it might seem that things could not get worse for George L. Curtis. He was watching from below the deck cover, as planes from the USS Hornet returned, this time with bombs:

It was evident that this attack was different than any we had gone through before. The bombs seemed to be heavier and the concentration seemed to be on this ship we were on. I saw one of the boys peel off and it seemed he was headed directly for this particular hatch. His machine guns were spurting flame and I could follow the tracer bullets. They were leaving my vision to land forward. At about some 1500 feet, he pulled out of his dive.

I saw the two bombs leave his plane, wobble a minute, then head for the ship. I followed the flight of the missile, fascinated, and it seemed that it was heading right for this hold. It didn’t, though. It landed so close that it knocked the planks loose that were partially covering the hatch along with three I-beams.

I must have passed out for awhile, and when I came to I couldn’t move. The hold was practically clear of men and I was pinned down so that I couldn’t move. Men were over me removing a beam that was laying across my legs and they felt numb. Another piece of debris was across my back and that, too, felt as though something was wrong. After a bit, I was liberated and I found that at least no bones were broken but I could hardly move my left leg.

The hold by now was full of smoke and there was a definite list to the ship toward the port side. There were many dead and wounded men under the debris, how many I don’t know. I was able to aid a little in clearing some of the wreckage from the men pinned under the hatch covers and the I-beams and I am sure that there was no living person in the hold when I started to make it to the ladder to get out. My leg still bothered quite a bit, but my head was clearing.

When I reached the deck, very few remained on board. I still had my belt on with the two empty canteens attached to my belt, but I started to look around for a life preserver as there were many scattered on the deck. Dead were everywhere, mostly Jap soldiers, and the decks were littered with personal belongings of both American prisoners and Japanese.

[After evading Japanese guards who were shooting at men in the water Curtis managed to jump off the ship]…

I kept swimming rather slowly, conserving my strength. My leg started to act up a bit, so I kicked along with my right leg and scanned the water looking for any more weak swimmers that I might come upon. Planes came flying over again but terribly high up, but I was hoping that I would be on shore should they start another run to sink the ship.

I didn’t want to be in the water if they started bombing again for I was not sure what effect a bomb landing in the water would have on a swimmer. When I was half way to the shore, four planes came from nowhere flying no more than a few hundred feet above the water which was filled with frantically shouting and waving Americans.

One peeled off, came still lower and definitely dipped his wings in recognition of us. After that, I felt sure that there would be no more bombing for the time being at least, and I again leisurely swam on. Again I looked back at the ship and now it was really afire. Smoke was belching from many parts and I thought I saw flames emerging from an area about where the entrance to our former hold was situated. Most smoke seemed to come from the stern.

As I arrived near shore, I began to feel chilled and very tired. I had been in the water for nearly half an hour and, for the moment, I didn’t think I’d make the short remaining distance, but I managed. As my feet touched bottom, a Navy officer helped drag me to dry land on the beach.

I tried to stand but couldn’t make it. I was completely exhausted; my leg was swelling badly and a large black and blue spot covered the area from the knee to my waistline. It wasn’t broken, though. I remained where I had been aided on the beach, trying to get up enough strength to carry on to follow the rest of the men that seemed to be heading in the brush through an opening off the beach.

A Jap guard came over to where I lay and started to prod me on with his bayonet. I didn’t move fast enough to suit him so he jabbed a little harder. The bayonet entered my bad leg in two places. I didn’t feel it though, but as soon as I was on my feet and laboriously making my way to follow the line of men in front of me, my leg started bleeding profusely, running down my leg and leaving a small pool of blood with each step I took.

Just as I was to turn off the beach and head through the brush, Commander Joses took me by the arm and sat me down at a place the prisoner doctors had set up to take care of those too sick or wounded to walk further. He had the bayonet wound treated in no time and I was started on my way with the rest of the men, barefooted, and so tired and weary.

The whole remarkable account, together with more background, can be read at the website of his niece Linda Dahl.

Detail from the picture above showing the splashes in the water as the POWs were swimming to shore.
Detail from the picture above showing the splashes in the water as the POWs were swimming to shore.

POWs under attack on the hellship Oryoku Maru

A pre war post card of the Japanese liner the Oryoku Maru. The prisoners were packed into the holds of the ship, below decks.
A pre war post card of the Japanese liner the Oryoku Maru. The prisoners were packed into the holds of the ship, below decks.
Aircraft from the USS Hornet sighted the Oryoku Maru on December 14, 1944 as it moved north along the west coast of Bataan Peninsula and attacked it many times that day.  A high level photograph from one of the attacking aircraft taken late in the day.
Aircraft from the USS Hornet sighted the Oryoku Maru on December 14, 1944 as it moved north along the west coast of Bataan Peninsula and attacked it many times that day. A high level photograph from one of the attacking aircraft taken late in the day.

George L. Curtis had been a manager for the Packard company in Manila, Philippines when war broke out. 1942 had seen him taken prisoner by the Japanese along with all surviving US service personnel on the islands. He was to endure the horrors of the Japanese prison camps for the next two years.

Their prospects brightened with US invasion of the Philippines – but their hopes were short lived. On the 13th December hundreds had been packed into the holds of the Oryoku Maru and told their destination was Japan. Below deck conditions were terrible, the men were closely packed in and suffered in the stifling heat. Lack of food and water made conditions worse.

This was only the beginning. As the ship crossed Subic Bay on the 14th it came under attack from fighters from the USS Hornet. Successive waves of fighters harassed the ship all day long, with attacks separated by half hour lulls. Below deck conditions got progressively worse:

I spent the better part of the day on the deck just under the hatch. I tried earlier to get back a little further but the air was so foul and it was so hot that I chose the possibilities of being hit by a stray bullet rather than suffer through the stifling heat back under the hatch bulkhead. About the only way I could be seriously hurt was if a bomb was to enter the compartment where I was, and if one were to enter the hold through the open hatch, even those in the far corners of the compartment wouldn’t be saved.

Most of our casualties of this day’s activity were caused by stray bullets and the fragments of stray bullets ricocheting from the bulkhead that was the upper half of the hold. All day, most of us knew death was very close. One man next to me was praying continuously. During the thick of the bombing, someone started the Lord’s Prayer and all joined in. Somehow after that we felt a great deal better.

They had sent down about four 5-gallon cans which were to be used for feces and urine. During the air raids, we were not allowed to empty them so that they ran over. Feces and urine were everywhere. Most of the men were suffering from dysentery or diarrhea. It goes without saying what an awful mess we were compelled to be in. The Jap guards refused to empty these cans and would not allow us to send a detail to do the job.

Commander Bridget was the officer in charge of our hold and he did an excellent job in trying to keep order and to build up morale to the extent that I don’t think I was ever awake when he wasn’t up on the ladder leading out of the hold doing all that was humanly possible. During the last few bombings, most of us actually wanted the ship to be hit for we knew that now we were close to shore and if we were hit and sunk, some of us could make it to land and out of this awful hell ship.

Being anchored let no air into the hold at all and the men are getting fretful. This was a dreadful night. The lack of food plus no issue of water have some of the men in a deplorable mental and physical condition. The results are beyond the power of imagination. Commander Bridget and several other of the older officers attempted to quiet the men but it was an almost impossible task. All night long the commands of “Quiet, men!” and “At ease!” were repeated over and over again. Men went stark mad. Others resorted to blood sucking. Many men, due to their extreme thirst, would grab canteens that had been used as urinals and drink the contents without thought of the results this would bring on.

Due to the threats of the Jap guards to throw hand grenades into the hold if the men were not quiet, it was necessary to muffle many men who were completely out of their heads and creating the most disturbance. In some instances, this action resulted in the death of the man. The hold can best be described as a sweltering mass of thirsty, fear-stricken, mad human beings.

Chips Bolan, a naval corpsman, was acting up so badly that those selected to keep order were commanded to tie him up to the escape ladder. This seemed to quiet him for awhile but it wasn’t very long before he started in with the most awful yells. On a few occasions, the Jap guard came to quiet us and this time he thrust his rifle over the side of the entrance and we all thought he would empty its contents at random at us lying on the deck.

One of the men went over again to quiet Chips and he got a painful kick in the groin that flattened him. Then the warrant officer put in charge by Commander Bridget had to take over with the result that he had to knock Chips unconscious. Unfortunately, he hit him too hard for the blow killed Chips and he was carried topside.

This was not the only death that occurred at the hands of our men. Another young lad went out of his head and began calling to the Japanese sentry and attempting to get up the ladder to get at him. The gist of his shouts was that he had suffered all that he intended to and that he would kill the dirty bastard or die in the attempt. In order to protect the majority of those of us in the hold from threatened hand grenades, it was necessary to quiet this man; such effort being too great for the blow killed him.

Several stabbings occurred among the men, mostly to get what little water that the victim had held onto. All told I believe seven men were found killed, not to mention the 38 that died from suffocation in this rear hold. Among them were some of the hardest working naval doctors we had aboard and my good friend Calvin Coolidge, and Commander Heddy.

All last night, the dead were passed over our heads as we sat on the deck at the base of the ladder, and we had a hard time of it getting those in the back up front due to the crowded conditions in the hold. So far, we have had no water or food, but maybe we’ll be hit early in the morning and be either killed or make shore; anything, or any place but this stinking hole.

The whole remarkable account, together with more background, can be read at the website of his niece Linda Dahl.

View of the island of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) April 1945. Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from Fighting Squadron VF-17 Jolly Rogers are visible on deck. April 1945
View of the island of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) April 1945. Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from Fighting Squadron VF-17 Jolly Rogers are visible on deck. April 1945

Sachsenhausen concentration camp – new arrivals

Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, was established in 1936 for German detainees. It was also an administrative and training centre for the SS. Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, December 19, 1938.
Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, was established in 1936 for German detainees. It was also an administrative and training centre for the SS. Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, December 19, 1938.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Oranienburg, which, along with its more than 50 satellite camps, provided the armaments industry in northern Germany with cheap slave labor, particularly during the Second World War. Roll call on a winters day, undated.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Oranienburg, which, along with its more than 50 satellite camps, provided the armaments industry in northern Germany with cheap slave labor, particularly during the Second World War. Roll call on a winters day, undated.

As the Nazis realised that they would have to start closing down their death camps in the east, prisoners were transferred further west to established concentration camps. Typically these were not extermination camps but concentration camps designed to punish rather than kill all of the inmates. Conditions would change with the new arrivals.

At first trains were used for transferring such prisoners, if none were available then forced marches were used. The conditions on the marches were appalling and often became instruments of torture and death themselves. Although Jews were prominent among their number, many other people were caught up, including the citizens who had been forcibly displaced from Warsaw.

Sachsenhausen had been opened in 1936 for German political prisoners. The regime was harsh, executions were common, as well as deaths from other causes. But the prisoners here saw a step change in conditions with the arrival of the transferees from the east.

Odd Nansen was a political prisoner from Norway, with a relatively privileged position, able to receive occasional food parcels from home. His diary, kept in secret at great risk, covered events in the camp – and he also sought to record the stories of other inmates:

13th December.

One big transport after another is arriving in camp. From Auschwitz, from other camps in Poland, from camps in Germany, and “evacuated” Jews by thousands from Hungary.

Two thousand six hundred Jews arrived the other day from Budapest. The transport hadn’t taken more than three days. Eighty died on the way, and when they got here they were left standing out in the cold most of the night. Eight died on the parade-ground. None had had a drop of water for three days. Food they had brought from home.

I remember, when the first transport of “evacuees” arrived from Warsaw, we were indignant that women, children and the aged should be dragged off in such transports. Now there aren’t many who react. Children, some under ten years old, are detained as convicts here and in other camps. The women are sent to camps of their own.

The aged are allowed to die here. The process is short, but not painless. It’s terrible to see them. Those who come from Poland, for instance, have nothing to put on but the rags issued here, and it’s the depth of winter. Only a very few have anything on their feet but wooden boards tied on with straps or string.

Of course they get pneumonia, tuberculosis and other illnesses and succumb in hundreds. They totter round for a while, go into the Revier [the camp ‘hospital’ or sickbay] (unless they’re Jews, in which case they’re not admitted) and there the crown is set on the work, especially in the Schonungsblocken [a block within the sickbay area], where they’re treated more like animals than anything else.

If one goes through one of the Schonungsblocken (as I have been doing regularly of late), one keeps on seeing living skeletons. Starving Poles, especially those with Durchfall (diarrhoea) who can’t retain any of the miserable fare they get. Diet? One can only laugh. An unknown concept.

A Jewish builder from Budapest, whom I’ve got to know, and who was on the terrible march from South Serbia to Germany, told me that one of his arms began to swell up and ache. He went to the doctor, who diagnosed periostitis, put the arm in splints and bandaged it, explaining that it was due to under-nourishment and the lack of certain substances in his food. He must eat more, a more nourishing and varied diet-fat for one thing. Merely a gibe; a frigid sneer.

The other evening I was talking to an old Pole in that Schonungsblocken. He was sixty-seven, but looked ninety-seven; bones, sinews and skin apart, I’ll wager his flesh and stomach didn’t weigh five kilos.

That he could hold himself up was a miracle, but obviously a miracle which would soon cease. He had great difficulty in speaking, and he spoke nothing but Polish. An interpreter translated. He was a Polish peasant from the Warsaw district, and had been “evacuated” here, starving and suffering; of the rest of his family, children and wife, he knew nothing. They had lost each other during the “evacuation”.

Now he had Durchfall and couldn’t eat. He had already gone out, was no longer a man, only a poor, suffering, still living creature waiting for peace. There are hundreds and thousands like him, innocent, harmless—suffering human beings.

See Odd Nansen: Day After Day

18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in 1941 after a three-month march across Germany - Sachsenhausen was used as an experimental site for the gas chambers.
18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in 1941 after a three-month march across Germany – Sachsenhausen was used as an experimental site for the gas chambers.

Terror of the Kempeitai in Kanchanaburi

Prisoners of war, in their quarters in an open-sided attap hut in the POW camp (commonly called Kanburi by the Australians). All seem aware that their photograph is being taken secretly, at risk to themselves and the photographer if film or camera were discovered by the Japanese. Many prisoners were brought here from Burma after the Burma-Thailand railway was completed.
Kanchanaburi (Kanburi). Prisoners of war, in their quarters in an open-sided attap hut in the POW camp (commonly called Kanburi by the Australians). All seem aware that their photograph is being taken secretly, at risk to themselves and the photographer if film or camera were discovered by the Japanese. Many prisoners were brought here from Burma after the Burma-Thailand railway was completed.

For prisoners of the Japanese life was never easy – even though conditions had eased somewhat for many men who had survived the building of the Burma Siam death railway.

Kanchanaburi in Thailand was regarded as one of the better camps, where there was a relatively regular supply of food. Malnourishment and the associated diseases were still common here but most men eaked out a living.

Ken Adams, a medic with the RAMC who worked in the camp hospital, describes conditions at the end of 1944, when they knew from Allied bombing raids that the war was going their way. Trying to find out any details was a perilous business:

The railway station and stores also were bombed repeatedly, but our camp was far enough away from them and we avoided casualties.

Towards the end of the year Allied planes flew over our camp most days, going to bomb something or coming back from a raid, and camp security now required the excavation of a substantial ditch, perhaps 20 feet deep and at least 30 feet across, around the entire camp.

This was a massive undertaking without mechanical assistance and was similar to the ditch excavated around the camp at Taimuang. I think similar ditches were carved out around camps across southern Thailand, a reflection of fundamental changes in the world outside the camps: only a few months before a simple bamboo fence, drawbridge and gate had satisfied camp security requirements.

The Kempeitai’s presence increased through the year. These stocky little policemen with their fondness for torture, dark glasses and swords that were too big for them, filled everyone with fear. They didn’t often make forays into our quarters but were unnecessarily destructive when they did, throwing our kit about with abandon. A lingering look from them made you quake.

I remember a lad at the aerodrome camp who was trussed up in a drainage ditch near one of the huts. I managed to talk to him and he said he’d attempted to escape and was waiting for the Kempeitai. He thought they were taking him to Singapore for execution.

The Kempeitai were horrible little bastards. My most vivid memory of them is being lined up outside a hut as they beat a bloke to death who’d been caught with a radio hidden in a tin of peanuts. We had to stand to attention and listen to his screaming. The beating lasted a long time. I can’t say how long but the bastards knew how to prolong this torture and didn’t want him to die too quickly. I can still hear those screams.

While this was happening, the camp gunso sauntered among our ranks, kicking blokes in the shins if they didn’t meet his notion of standing to attention. If the purpose of the violence was to provide an object lesson in why not to build and operate a radio, it was very effective.

We speculated endlessly on the meaning of all this bombing, digging and secret police activity. We also speculated on what the Japanese were trying to achieve by making propaganda films at this time about our ‘privileged’ lives as prisoners.

We were filmed resplendent in new clothes we’d never see again, within drooling distance of fine foods we’d never eat and holding tennis rackets we’d never use to hit a ball.

Did the air strikes mean the end of the war was just around the corner? Did all the digging anticipate possible landings by paratroops and attempts to arm prisoners? Was the stage being set for a defensive tussle that might outlive us? Was the filming part of a strategy to rewrite history in preparation for a post-war world when we’d be reconciled?

See Ken Adams: Healing in Hell: The Memoirs of a Far Eastern POW Medic

Kanchanaburi, Thailand. January 1945. Kanchanaburi (Kanburi) is fifty kilometres north of Nong Pladuk (also known as Non Pladuk), or 364 kilometres south of Thanbyuzayat. Prisoners of war line up in a meal queue at an attap canteen hut in the POW camp (commonly called Kanburi by the Australians). Many prisoners were brought here from Burma by the Japanese after the Burma-Thailand railway was completed. Note that most prisoners wear rubber clogs on their feet. Most clothing has been lost or worn out.
Kanchanaburi, Thailand. January 1945. Kanchanaburi (Kanburi) is fifty kilometres north of Nong Pladuk (also known as Non Pladuk), or 364 kilometres south of Thanbyuzayat. Prisoners of war line up in a meal queue at an attap canteen hut in the POW camp (commonly called Kanburi by the Australians). Many prisoners were brought here from Burma by the Japanese after the Burma-Thailand railway was completed. Note that most prisoners wear rubber clogs on their feet. Most clothing has been lost or worn out.

Wartime Berlin – an international city, underground

The production of German munitions and armaments, including many of her secret weapons programmes was now heavily dependent on foreign labour.
The production of German munitions and armaments, including many of her secret weapons programmes was now heavily dependent on foreign labour.
Foreign workers in a munitions factory being addressed by Dr Robert Ley, head of the Nazi labour organisation in August 1944.
Foreign workers in a munitions factory being addressed by Dr Robert Ley, head of the Nazi labour organisation in August 1944.

Berlin had been transformed in many ways by the war. The city already lay in ruins and the threat of further bombing was ever present.

As the Nazis tried to find every last German to send to the front, the war economy was sustained by millions of forced labourers, brought from every corner of occupied Europe. Journalist Ursula von Kardorff was still keeping her diary, noting every aspect of life in wartime:

30 November 1944

The Friedrichstrasse station, with its broad stairways, which lead to a kind of underworld, is supposed to be bomb-proof. It is all rather as I imagine Shanghai to be.

Ragged, romantic-looking characters in padded jackets, with high, Slav cheekbones, mixed with fair-haired Danes and Norwegians, smartly turned-out Frenchwomen, Poles casting looks of hatred at everybody, fragile, chilly Italians — a mingling of races such as can never before have been seen in any German city.

The people down there are almost all foreigners and one hardly hears a word of German spoken. Most of them are conscripted workers in armaments factories. All the same they do not strike one as being depressed. Many of them talk loudly and cheerfully, laugh, sing, swap their possessions and do a little trading and live in accordance with their own customs.

As a matter of necessity – and not out of kindness — canteens have been set up for them, they have stage shows and even their own newspapers.

Everybody knows everybody else. Girls go from table to table and young men, wearing bright scarves and their hair long, wander to and fro. Here and there a few people are given the cold shoulder, probably because they are spies or detectives.

They say that the foreign workers are very well organized indeed. It seems that there are agents among them, officers sent in by the various resistance movements, who are well supplied with arms and have wireless transmitters.

Otherwise how could the Soldatensender [ a propaganda radio station broadcast from Britain] be so up to date with its news and how could ‘Gustav Siegfried Eins” be able to interlard its rubbish with so much that is true? They end their news bulletins with the words, ‘That was the Chief speaking.’

These stations are far more eagerly listened to by us here than all the broadcasts from the House of the German Radio. There are twelve million foreign workers in Germany — an army in itself.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

 A Nazi propaganda picture of a creche in a 'Ostarbeiterlager' - camp for easterners - filled with 'zwangsdeportierten' - forced deportees - women brought from the Soviet Union.
A Nazi propaganda picture of a creche in a ‘Ostarbeiterlager’ – camp for easterners – filled with ‘zwangsdeportierten’ – forced deportees – women brought from the Soviet Union.
Most Germans living in towns and cities had had some experience of bombing by now.
Most Germans living in towns and cities had had some experience of bombing by now.

Survival as a POW in Nagasaki, Japan

Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW's suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri. Leslie Cole, 1945
Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW’s suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri.
Leslie Cole, 1945

Aidan McCarthy, a Medical Officer with the RAF, had survived a series of hazardous episodes during the war including the evacuation from Dunkirk, the rescue of men from a burning aircraft that had crashed on a bomb dump – for which he was awarded the George Medal, the surrender of Java to the Japanese and being torpedoed when his POW ship was en route to Japan. He then found himself in a POW camp in Nagasaki.

Here they struggled with malnutrition while being forced to work on building warships for Mitsubishi. There was also the casual cruelty of the guards:

The poor quality and scarcity of our rations were the cause of a big increase in beri beri. Another problem was dropsy (an accumulation of water in the tissues), and in these cases numerous trips to the toilets became a necessity, especially at night.

Those who made the lavatory trip were usually in a great hurry but first the permission of the guards on duty had to be obtained. POWs had to bow and say ‘Banjo-ari-ma-sen’ (Toilet please). On the return trip another bow to the guard was required and an ‘Arigato’ (Thank you).

Some of the guards were bloody-minded and instead of allowing the man straight through they kept him waiting for no apparent reason. This delay was sometimes disastrous. The result caused great amusement for the guard and also earned the unfortunate man a few slaps on the face.

Casual beatings were commonplace for any inaction of the ‘rules’. When they were finally allowed to send postcards home to their relatives, the Japanese discovered that 13 of the men, including MacCarthy, came from Ireland. All were given a beating by the camp Commandant because they came from a neutral country but had volunteered to fight for the British.

Towards the end of 1944 most of the other officers were moved to other camps leaving only the Medical Officers and Padres behind:

Because of a Japanese decision to dispense with general duty officers, I, by virtue of my seniority, found myself the camp’s senior officer. This meant I was beaten each time offences were committed and thus ensured a daily beating. I was given a blow on the head with a bamboo cane or a blow on the face for each offender. Then the offenders themselves received several blows.

This face slapping and head bashing with a cane or sometimes with a leather belt was not too painful when one was tensed and ready for it. True, apart from a local stinging of the scalp, it sometimes produced a slight headache.

Though we found it difficult to obtain radios or receive news, we realised that the Japanese were definitely losing the war. The wholesale demolition of houses to provide fire lanes in the event of incendiary bombing, the increased air raids, the irritability of the officers and warrant oflicers with the guards and of course with us, and a continuous atmosphere of tension gave us all the evidence we needed.

Our main source of war news came from small maps in newspapers that had been discarded by civilian workers after being used for wrapping food. They were small inset maps with Japanese writing and characters. We collected them lovingly and became expert at recognizing the different characters for aeroplanes, tanks, naval ships, the different nationalities and even which parts of the world the maps represented.

By careful analysis of successive maps we were able to piece together a fairly comprehensive picture of the Pacific war in general — or at least as it was presented to the Japanese people.

The European theatre of war was reported without concealment of the real facts. Besides it soon became apparent from the remarks of our guards that they considered Germans ‘not joto’ (no good). In a peculiar and paradoxical fashion, the Japanese seemed to relish the fact that the Germans were beginning to take a hiding in Europe.

POWs returning from the ration runs reported that they had seen young Japanese cadets in full dress uniform wearing white Banzi head scarves instead of caps. Armed with a large sword at their sides, they were strutting about the streets and being treated like gods. We speculated that they must be royal princes — yet they seemed so prolific that this theory was unlikely. One such figure appeared in our camp, where he had VIP treatment from the whole staff, including the Commandant. Later, the interpreter told us that they were Kamakasi (suicide) pilots. For a week prior to their one and only flying mission, they were given this godlike treatment. In my opinion they deserved it.

The repeated knocks to the head were to have long term consequences for MacCarthy. In 1969, while still serving in the RAF he began to suffer blackouts and was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumour. The operation to remove it discovered it to be benign, almost certainly the consequence of numerous small bleeds as a result of being hit on the head. See Aidan MacCarthy: A Doctor’s War.

General George S. Patton confronts an SS General

Troops of the U.S. 5th Infantry Division entering Metz on 18 November 1944
Troops of the U.S. 5th Infantry Division entering Metz on 18 November 1944

The heavily fortified border city of Metz had been seized from the French in 1870, returned to the French in 1918 and again seized by the Germans in 1940. The US Third Army’s struggle to liberate it had taken nearly three months and heavy casualties.

Sergeant Leonard O’Reilly discovered SS Major General Anton Dunckern hiding in a brewery on the 20th Novemebr, during a thorough search of Metz following its occupation on the 19th. At first Dunckern demanded to be allowed to surrender to a senior officer but, with a cocked pistol prodding him in the stomach, soon changed his mind. He was later brought before General Patton.

Although Patton spoke German fluently he chose have the interview translated because he would not demean himself to speak to him directly:

Patton
You can tell this man that naturally in my position I can­not demean myself to question him, but I can say this, that I have captured a great many German generals, and this is the first one who has been wholly untrue to everything; because he has not only been a Nazi but he is untrue to the Nazis by surrendering. If he wants to say anything he can, and I will say that unless he talks pretty well, I will turn him over to the French. They know how to make people talk.

Dunckern
. . . I received orders to go in the Metz sector and defend a certain sector there, and the reason I did not perish was that I could not reach my weapons and fight back.

Patton
. . . He is a liar!

Dunkern
There was no possibility to continue fighting. The door was opened, and they put a gun on me.

Patton
If he wanted to be a good Nazi, he could have died then and there. It would have been a pleasanter death than what he will get now.

Dunkern
. . . It was useless to do anything about it under the circumstances. (He asked permission to ask a question; it was granted.) I was fighting against American troops and captured by them, and therefore am to be considered a prisoner of war of the American forces.

Patton
He will be a prisoner of war of the French forces soon. They have a lot they want to ask him.

Dunkern
I consider myself a prisoner of war of the American forces, and I have not been captured by the French forces.

Patton
When I am dealing with vipers, I do not have to be bothered by any foolish ideas any more than he has been.

Dunkern
I consider myself a prisoner of war since I fought as a soldier and should be treated as a soldier.

Patton
You also acted as a policeman – a low type of police.

Dunkern
I acted as an officer of the police in an honorable and practical manner, and I have nothing to be ashamed of.

Patton
This is a matter of opinion – no one who is a Nazi policeman could act in an honorable manner.

Dunkern
I can only say that during every day of my life I have been honest, rightful, respectful, and humanitarian.

Patton
If this is the case, do you have anything you want to say by way of giving me information or by talking about the German people that will change my opinion?

Dunkern
No one will be able to stand up against me to testify that I did anything against the rules of humanity or human treatment.

Patton
I understand German very well, but I will not demean myself by speaking such a language. I think before I turn the General over to the French, I will send him to the Army Group who may question him or have some special investigators question him, and they can do things I can’t do.

Dunkern
I am not worried about having myself investigated. Of course, there may be some mistakes I have made, which is only human, but I am not worried about inhuman acts charged against me.

Patton
. . . I have great respect for the German soldiers; they are gallant men, but not for Nazis. Have the guards take him outside and have his picture taken and then we’ll see what we will do with him. Also tell him that those bayonets on the guards’ guns are very sharp.”

See The Patton Papers: 1940-1945

An early picture of Nazi party member Anton Dunckern later SS Major General
An early picture of Nazi party member Anton Dunckern later SS Major General

Anton Dunckern was subsequently sentenced to 20 years hard labour for his role as SS Police chief in charge of the Strasbourg region, but released in 1954. He died in 1985.
Contemporary Newsreel featuring Metz amongst several stories from this time, including Peleliu:

Troops of 5th Infantry Division conducting a house-to-house search in Metz on 19 November 1944
Troops of 5th Infantry Division conducting a house-to-house search in Metz on 19 November 1944