Cover image for The last escape : the untold story of Allied prisoners of war in Europe, 1944-45
Title:
The last escape : the untold story of Allied prisoners of war in Europe, 1944-45
Author:
Nichol, John, 1963-
Personal Author:
Edition:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, 2003.

©2002
Physical Description:
xx, 520 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Language:
English
Contents:
The Russians are coming -- Abandoned to their fate -- Out into the cold -- Fears of a massacre -- The retreat from Stalag Luft IV -- The deadly road to the west -- The rivers of humanity -- Liberated by the Red Army -- Hostages of Stalin -- Waiting for Patton -- The hell of Fallingbostel -- Death by "friendly fire" -- A German savior? -- Heading for home -- Welcome back -- Epilogue -- Appendix 1. Chronology of the end of the Second World War -- Appendix 2. The Yalta Agreement on Prisoners of War, February 1945 -- Appendix 3. The senior American officer's complaint about conditions at Stalag XIIID, Nuremberg -- Appendix 4. The numbers game.
Added Author:
ISBN:
9780670032129
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

By June 1944 there were hundreds of thousands of American and British prisoners of war in camps across Nazi-controlled Europe. News of the D-Day landings, heard on secret camp radios, filled the prisoners with both hope and dread. Amid this confusion and fear, the POWs were herded from their camps and forced at gunpoint to walk many hundreds of miles deeper into Germany on what the POWs themselves called the Death March. In The Last Escape, Gulf War POW and author John Nichol and popular historian Tony Rennell relate the astonishing story of these unrecognized heroes. Drawing upon interviews with many surviving veterans who speak here for the first time, this is an unparalleled account of endurance and courage in wartime.


Author Notes

John Nichol is a former RAF flight lieutenant whose Tornado bomber was shot down on a mission over lraq during the Gulf War. He was captured and became a prisoner of war. He is also a journalist and widely quoted military commentator
Tony Rennell: now a freelance writer, he was formerly associate editor of the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The authors note that there were an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 British and American prisoners in camps across Germany in 1944 and 1945 who survived World War II. Nichol and Rennell admit that gathering precise information was a problem in their research for this book, and they remind readers that it is not a definitive history of the POW camps. Yet from such sources as interviews, diaries, and more than 60 books on the subject, they describe in vivid detail the horrendous conditions in the camps and the forced marches after the Allied landing in France on June 6, 1944, and the Russian army's advance from the east. Survivors tell of the bitter cold, illness, filth, lack of food, despair, exhaustion, and indignities. They relate their fear of being shot by the guards, their faith in God, and their homesickness. They remember how hidden radios kept them informed of the war's progress and how Red Cross parcels sometimes brought them much-needed food. An exceptional chronicle of bravery and endurance. --George Cohen Copyright 2003 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

The author of Tornado Down, former RAF Flight Lt. Nichol was a Gulf War POW, while Last Days of Glory author Rennell is the former associate editor of the London Sunday Times. They cleverly weave WWII policy decisions dealing with POWs with firsthand accounts of POWs inside prison camps in Europe and during the forced evacuation marches many endured during the last months of the war. As the Russians advanced in summer 1944, POWs were crammed into boxcars (and, later, ships), attacked by guards in retaliation for Allied bombing of Germany and sent on extensive forced marches, described here in horrifying detail. As the war ended, some Red Cross relief convoys got through, but General Patton failed in an attempt to liberate a POW camp holding his son-in-law behind German lines. The reluctance of Russians to return liberated British and American POWs to the West was balanced by the issue of forced repatriation of former Soviet POWs who didn't want to return to the Stalinist state. Nichol and Rennell offer anecdotal evidence that some POWs were killed by the SS, and retribution by prisoners against brutal guards also occurred. In the postwar lives of a few POWs featured, incarceration took a physical and psychological toll. While offering little in the way of new information, and failing to cover fully the complete spectrum of prison camps and prisoner nationalities, the authors provide a compelling account of the ways, means and effects of mass imprisonment during the last terrible century. (June 2) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

By June 1944, there were hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners in German POW camps, many in eastern Germany. As the war ground on, Soviet forces began threatening the easternmost camps, and the Germans chose to march those prisoners west. It was winter, and the prisoners had to walk hundreds of miles or be transported under terrible conditions. Allied policy on POWs was in disarray, but there was a great concern that SS or other authorities would massacre prisoners or hold them as hostages. Drawing on first-person narratives and published works, British authors Nichol, a journalist and former RAF flier who became a POW during the first Gulf War, and Rennell (Last Days of Glory) concentrate primarily on British POWs and secondarily on Americans, paying virtually no attention to the many other Western allies held in German camps. How the end game played out, the fates of those camps overrun by the Soviets, and the general muddle, terror, deprivation, and determination of individual prisoners to survive makes for a complex story and a valuable addition to World War II literature. Recommended for military and political collections, and public libraries.-Edwin B. Burgess, Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Introduction It was a bleak place. Ahead, the road stretched out through the pine forest as far as the eye could see. Above, the sky was gray, and drizzle was falling. But here, in this remote corner of eastern Europe, Roger Allen felt himself on familiar territory. "It reminded me of home then," he said, "and it still does now."1 "Then" was 1944. He was the tail gunner in a bomber flying on his thirteenth mission over Germany when three Messerschmitt fighters came roaring out of the sky, cannons blazing directly at him. Bullets ripped through the fuselage, an engine was hit, flames licked around him. The instinct to survive took over, and at 20,000 feet he bailed out. Three of the crew were not so lucky and died. As his parachute opened he looked up and saw the plane he had left just a split second before explode. On the ground he was captured by a patrol of soldiers, boys in uniform-fifteen or sixteen years old, he thought. He was all of twenty-one, and for him, in that time-honored phrase, the war was over. Instead, a different sort of war was now beginning for him, and one in which his life would be in just as much danger as it had been when he was airborne. What lay ahead was an ordeal he was lucky to survive. Weeks later, on a train nearing his designated prisoner-of-war camp, he looked out and saw the streams, hills, and forests of eastern Germany that made him think of home 5,000 miles away in the very heart of the United States. He was a prisoner in a land which, for all its familiar-looking contours, was not his own and where he was not just a stranger but an enemy. "Yes, I was scared as we marched up to the gates along a path between the pine trees and I saw the barbed wire in front of me. I was in someone else's power. They had me, and I had no idea for how long. As I looked around, I realized that escape was pretty well an impossibility. I would just have to make the best I could out of this situation." More than half a century later, Roger Allen returned to eastern Europe on a different mission. A whole lifetime had gone by-a blissfully happy marriage, a fulfilling job, beautiful children, grandchildren already grown up. Now retired, he felt something pulling him back. There was a gap in his life he wanted to fill, a hole in his personal history that even those he loved knew little about. When I got home at the end of the war in 1945, I didn't say much about what had happened. Yes, it had been bad-very bad-but I didn't want to burden anyone. Anyway, all I wanted to do was go out and have fun again. I met Flo, and we hit it off really well; we were married three months later. I didn't want to tell her about it, because it was all behind me. We had a new life of our own to lead. Roger Allen's war experiences were forgotten, a part of himself that he did not visit, until ten years ago, when he retired from his job on a newspaper and started to unbutton the past. He joined an organization for former prisoners of war, and began to recollect and to talk. For the first time, his daughters heard snippets about their father's life in Nazi Germany. Pieces of the jigsaw were put together, but the whole picture was still hazy. Then, in 2001, Allen decided to go back and face his demons. In the autumn of that year, with his family, he joined a party of veterans who crossed the Atlantic to Germany and took a coach to that remote pine forest and the site of the camp that had once housed them and 10,000 other Allied prisoners of war. There was little left to see: the miles of barbed-wire fencing had gone, and so had the watchtowers that stood at every corner. Only a few brick and stone foundations remained. The authors accompanied Allen on this trip into what had once been Germany but was now part of Poland.2 He set off into the undergrowth to try to find where his own hut had been, but his legs-bowed and damaged in his experiences back in 1944 and 1945-stumbled on the rough, uneven ground and he had to stop. He turned away from us, but we knew there were tears in his eyes. We found a hollow in the ground, a cave with a bricked-up entrance that he recognized as a store for potatoes-the one staple in the prisoners' diet. Then we came across a water-filled concrete pool, its stagnant contents choked with weed and insects. Things were falling into place. Here was flesh beginning to appear on old bones. The forgotten past was coming back to life. Except it had not been forgotten. There was a monument there on the site of what had once been Stalag Luft IV, erected as a tribute to brave British and American prisoners of war by the Polish people who had come to occupy the towns and villages nearby when the war was over. Nor was it a neglected monument. The next day, having been told that veterans from America were coming to visit, the locals turned out in the hundreds. Young soldiers of the Polish Army formed an honor guard. Old men with drooping moustaches and wrinkled faces wore the uniforms of the partisan units in which they had fought the Germans half a century before. Wreaths were laid and, as "The Star Spangled Banner" rang out over a loudspeaker in the still of the forest, Roger Allen, snapping to attention with his fellow veterans, made no attempt at all to conceal the tears running down his face. To his family, what was happening was astonishing. An easy-going husband, father, and grandfather was being hailed as a hero of the Second World War. In the winter of 1945, one of the coldest in modern times, he and all the other Allied inmates of that camp had been marched out into the unknown. The war was coming to an end, the Soviet Army was advancing into Hitler's Germany from the east, and Stalag Luft IV was one of many camps that lay in the invaders' path. Rather than let their captives go, the Germans forced them out of their barracks into the snow and away toward the west. It was the start of a 500-mile journey across Germany. Hundreds died. They froze, they starved, they were broken down by sickness and exhaustion. In their minds was the constant fear that they were marching to their deaths, that they would end up victims of a desperate dictator seeking revenge. Allen's family were shocked by the story of appalling misery and unbelievable human endurance they were hearing. This was the secret he had kept to himself for fifty years. In his comfortable retirement bungalow in a small town 30 miles north of London, "Batch" Batchelder, a former British airman of the same vintage as Roger Allen, shared the secret. He too had been shot down over Germany, though in his case it had been much earlier, in 1942, and he had been a prisoner in a different camp. As he told us about POW life, he spoke about "the death march," and we looked at him in astonishment. Neither of us had ever heard of such an atrocity happening to British servicemen in the war in Europe. It was the starting point for the research that has resulted in this book. Batchelder told us that starvation and dysentery had reduced him to a little over ninety pounds in weight. At the end of the war, many POWs were skeletons whose appearance would have been hard to distinguish from that of a concentration-camp survivor. The world had shuddered with horror as those sad and debilitated souls emerged from the Nazi death camps. But why did no one seem to know about Allen and Batchelder and the thousands like them? One of the answers is that, when they returned, their ordeal was indeed overshadowed by the horrors of Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau. And rightly so, as they would be the first to admit. They suffered, but they were not systematically tortured and destroyed. There was no pile of corpses, no inventory of 6 million slaughtered, no obscene paraphernalia of gas chambers and ovens. Compared with what had been done to the Jews and the other victims of Nazi hate, their experience seemed slight.3 Then the facts emerged about Japanese ill-treatment of Allied prisoners in the Far East, and the brutality and inhumanity there also seemed to make the ordeal of these men in German hands seem insignificant. Somehow their story disappeared. Their place in history was a footnote: The war had ended, and they had simply come home. In the words of one eminent military historian, "When finally the Third and Last Reich foundered in a cloud of putrid dust, some 250,000 British, Commonwealth and American prisoners marched briskly out of the ruins."4 March they certainly did, and briskly too, but the impression given of a swift and easy liberation is wrong. However, the former POWs did little to correct it. Many wrote down their stories and showed them to each other, had them privately published, sent them to military archives. But the secret stayed within the group. Time and again they would explain how they could not discuss their experiences with anyone other than another prisoner of war. One of them wrote to a friend: There isn't a day that goes by that I don't have some thoughts about those difficult days, but I seldom talk about them. The few times that I did, I got the distinct impression that the ordeal I was describing was not fully understood. Only when sharing your experiences with another former POW can you be sure that he knows what you are feeling. You can see it in his eyes.5 Why did they keep their stories to themselves? Partly it was because some felt that POWs were looked down on, that being captured had put them in a category that was halfway toward cowardice. Having to surrender was rarely anything other than a humiliating experience, and the trauma of it could last a long time. It would not be eased by the letters that were said to have arrived in prison camps from unsympathetic girlfriends with messages such as "I would sooner marry a hero than a coward." Feeling they had let the side down by being captured in the first place, most POWs were reluctant to talk when they got home. In the years immediately after the war a few memoirs appeared. Among the first books about prisoner-of-war life was writer and broadcaster Robert Kee's A Crowd Is Not Company , published in 1947. Its thrust was in the title: Being a prisoner of war was a drab and demoralizing experience. You lost your privacy and your dignity. But this was not a message that the postwar reading public wanted to hear, and in 1952 the hero books began to appear-stories of comradeship and fellowship centered around the activities of the escapees. From then on the accepted image of the prisoner of war was an airman in a turtleneck sweater who spent his days tunneling and his nights plotting new ways of taunting the guards. In the face of this, who was going to admit to a camp life that was humdrum and fear filled? RAF pilot Ron Walker, a man whose courage will become obvious in the pages ahead, wrote at the end of his diary: Any reader will have noticed a difference between this narrative and the scripts of popular POW epics such as The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape, and Colditz. A distinct lack of the expected British stiff upper lip! Well, although there were many prisoners of war who did have heroic qualities, I was not one of them. I was, as now, more a canary than an eagle! Naturally I would have liked to present myself in a more favourable light but then it would not have been my war-time diary, and I know that all deficiencies and weaknesses in my character will be accepted by those who love me.6 The testimonies in this book fill a gap in our knowledge about the end of the Second World War. This is the heroic story of the Rogers and the Rons and hundreds of thousands like them who made it home in appalling circumstances and against terrible odds. Theirs was the ultimate prisoner-of-war epic-the last escape from Germany. *** A word of caution. This is not a definitive history of prisoner-of-war camps in Germany in the Second World War. We have not covered every camp and every march or each moment of liberation. To do so would be next to impossible. As a result, there will be those who will read this account and wonder why they have been left out, or complain that their experiences-those of a father or a grandfather-were different. No man's story was typical. Some sailed blithely through prison-camp life and returned home unaffected. Others were tormented for the rest of their lives. Such was the nature of camp life that one man's experiences could be totally at odds with those of a man in the next hut, let alone the next compound or another camp hundreds of miles away. To be a prisoner of war was to be deprived of certain knowledge beyond your immediate surroundings. For example, there were prisoners at Stalag Luft III, the famous Great Escape camp, who had no idea that the camp stretched to five compounds let alone that men in just one of those compounds were digging their way to freedom through tunnels named Tom, Dick, and Harry. The lack of precise information is still a problem. For all our research, we confess at the outset to being unable to answer with certainty some basic questions. How many prisoner-of-war camps were there in Germany in the Second World War? It depends on which month of which year, and whether you count separately the many hundreds of satellite work camps. Official sources in Washington list 238 principal camps spread all over Germany, though some of these may have been civilian camps or transit camps, and their designations-and even their locations-do not always correspond to those in German sources. How many prisoners of war were there in Germany? The same problem applies, and official documents are inconsistent in their estimates of numbers, but it can be said with some (but not total) confidence that in the middle of 1944 Germany had 9 million prisoners of various nationalities. It is a staggering figure, hard to take in: Imagine the entire population of Greater London being held behind barbed wire. But it is also a misleading figure, because it does not take into account the millions of captured Russian soldiers who had already perished, unfed and neglected in the east. Germany in the dying days of the Third Reich was in many ways an armed prison camp-which makes the survival of the estimated 250,000 to 300,000 British and American prisoners even more remarkable. They were spread over the whole of Germany in many different camps, but the bulk of them had been placed in the Stalags* farthest to the east-as far away from home as could be, in order to deter them from escaping. And it is there, in the summer of 1944, that we begin. 1: The Russians Are Coming Sergeant Jimmy "Dixie" Deans heard the long-expected good news transmitted from a thousand miles away and, for all his excitement, realized he now had a serious problem on his hands. Problems, though, were his strength. He was just thirty years old, but everyone-prisoner of war and German guard alike-acknowledged his as the wisest of heads on young shoulders. Though there were older and more senior men to choose from, the 3,000 British airmen imprisoned in this wasteland on the northeastern border of Hitler's Germany had not hesitated to elect him their camp leader-the person who would represent their interests to the Germans. Minutes before, John Bristow, one of Deans's most trusted men, had hummed along to the last strains of Vera Lynn singing "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire," then taken the record off the windup gramophone to get at the secret radio hidden inside-known in camp slang as "the canary." Outside, from beyond Stalag Luft VI's barbed-wire perimeter fence, a chilly wind, surprising for early summer, was blowing in, kicking up swirls of dust and sand on the parade ground, so that the men posted at the door to keep an eye out for patrolling German guards had to wrap themselves up to stay warm. The radio, built by Bristow from spare parts that had been stolen or smuggled in, was the prisoners' most precious secret. Twice in eight months it had come within a whisker of being discovered when the "ferrets"-security officers whose job it was to foil escapes-searched Deans's hut. But it had survived-for this moment in history. That morning Bristow had been carrying out a routine test of the radio, connecting up the clothesline that doubled as a makeshift aerial and twiddling the two knobs fashioned from toothbrushes until he could tune in to London. What he heard through the crackle and hiss of the static made him realize that something big was happening. There would be more on the regular news bulletin. And so, at noon, he crouched over the radio, earphones on, to hear the faint voice of the BBC announcer John Snagge from London: "D-Day has come. Early this morning the Allies began the assault on the northwestern face of Hitler's European fortress." It was Tuesday June 6, 1944, and British, American, and Canadian forces had been battling since dawn for a beachhead on the coast of France. On the other headset, Ron Mogg-a journalist in civilian life-began taking down the details in shorthand, but his hands were shaking so much with excitement that he had to pass the job over to someone else. The news was wonderful. Even Deans, not known for displays of emotion, was ecstatic. The guards at the prisoner-of-war camp, close to the border with the Soviet Union, had been bragging for weeks that the coming invasion in the west would never succeed. The Atlantic Wall built by the Germans was impregnable, they told their prisoners. Don't get your hopes up. The invaders would be thrown back into the sea. The Thousand Year Reich still had many centuries to run. The news direct from London told a different story. The first giant step toward the liberation of Europe-and, ultimately, of the men under Deans's command-had been taken. There was a real chance that the war would be over by Christmas-that, God willing, they would be home for Christmas. Meanwhile, Deans, a thoughtful man who never did anything without first considering the consequences, addressed the difficulties posed by the news. He had to find a way of passing it on to the men, but without alerting the Germans to how they had heard it. "If the camp breaks out cheering, the Germans will know for sure that we have a radio," he had warned Mogg in his gentle Scottish burr. "Call in all the news messengers and warn them to be ready but no one is to pass the word until I say so."1 The bigger problem was to make sure that the joy of these young men-many of whom had, like him, been prisoners of a hard and ruthless enemy for four long years-was kept under control and not allowed to explode into a premature uprising. They had been behind barbed wire forever, or so it felt-in that debilitating state of being unfree, eternally hungry, deprived of love and comfort, and scarred by the wasted years and the humiliation of captivity. Now they would see for the first time a real possibility of defeat turning into victory. But what if demonstrations of joy led to open defiance of their captors? "Jerry-baiting"-making fun of the German guards, irritating them, pushing back at them without pushing too far-would have a new and dangerous edge as the guards became nervous or volatile or vindictive and certainly more trigger-happy than before. There had been deaths in the camp even at settled times-a prisoner shot while trying to escape; another, in a notorious instance that had enraged them all and nearly led to mutiny, gunned down for having left his hut three minutes early in the morning, before the night curfew was over. Who could tell what tragedies were possible in the unsettled months ahead? Deans knew it would be up to him to guide his men home, to get them through the war's GštterdŠmmerung finale. His first problem quickly solved itself. As the messengers were doing their job, slipping from overcrowded hut to overcrowded hut, their whispered bulletins greeted in silence, a loud cheer suddenly burst out from A compound and spread around the entire camp. Discipline had not broken down, however-it never would under the rule of "King" Dixie. Apparently the invasion had been announced on German radio, and one of the guards was spreading the news himself. "You have invaded Europe but soon we will push you back into the sea, and England and the Americans will want peace, the war will end and you can all help us fight the Russians," he declared, putting his own chauvinist spin on events happening 900 miles away. Over in the neighboring compound for American prisoners, the word was also spreading fast among the 1,500 airmen there, first carried surreptitiously by another eager former newspaperman, Tom McHale, and then broadcast over the camp loudspeaker by the Germans themselves-their bombastic version of what was happening repeating their confident claim that the Allies would be thrown back into the sea. This was the signal for the Daily Recco , the newspaper hammered out by the prisoners on an old typewriter under hand-lettered headlines, to go into production. Soon a front page was posted on the wall of a hut. It ran the text of the official German version: "During last night, the enemy began his long-prepared offensive against Western Europe, which has been awaited by us....Bitter fighting is in progress." The POWs who crowded around to read passed quickly over the propaganda, their eyes returning to fix on the banner headline in bright red across the top-"INVASION." That said all they wanted to know. D-Day had been discussed and awaited for the past eighteen months, ever since Hitler's overreaching adventure of invading the Soviet Union had died in the ruins of Stalingrad and then turned into retreat. At Prokhorovka, on the Russian steppes, 2 million soldiers, 6,000 tanks, and 4,000 planes had fought for supremacy in the summer of 1943. The Red Army had won, expelling the German Army from Soviet soil and then pressing relentlessly west into Poland until the front line was barely 200 miles from the camp here at Heydekrug, close to the Baltic Sea. New prisoners brought to the camp had been pumped for information-"When do you think the war will be over?" was the first thing the old lags (POWs) crowding around them always asked-and they had told of huge convoys at home, prohibited areas around the southern ports of England, and immense troop concentrations. Now, with the British and American landings in Normandy, the Second Front was under way and the squeeze on Germany and the choking of its military machine could begin. Flight Sergeant Richard Passmore, a prisoner since 1940, could not contain his elation that an end was in sight-"an end to hunger, separation, confinement, lack of fulfilment."2 For the rest of his life he was never able to forget the harsh facts of life as a prisoner of war. "We went to bed hungry, we got up hungry, we rose from each mockery of a meal hungry; and we sat, stood, lay, or walked in a state of constant gnawing hunger. At night we dreamed we were free and at home, and awoke anew to the dreadful reality. Each new morning, despair clawed at the guts again." Not this jubilant morning. As the word spread, some men dashed to see the written proof of what they had been promised for so long. Others took their time. Sergeant Cal Younger, a twenty-two-year-old Australian, sauntered over from his hut with his closest friends in the camp, his hands in his pockets, "affecting dignity, indifference, nonchalance perhaps," as he recalled many years later.3 He had been in a state of melancholy for months now, brought on by the arrival of a letter from home-the one that all POWs dreaded: Nancy had broken off our engagement. An older man would have expected it, would probably have released the girl long before, but I had never allowed myself to believe that it could happen, though her letters had been troubled and less frequent. Yet here it was, in words of kindly finality not so different from those which countless other men here had read. For some, a shattered romance could be the last straw, bringing an end to that hope of home that got them through each day. A few would sink into themselves, losing interest in life-some to the point where they wandered toward the wire and invited the sentries to open fire on them. Younger had avoided that route, helped by his friends. That was generally the way of camp life. Prisoners had their buddies-two or three, rarely more-and they looked after each other, sharing food and space and pastimes. They were hard-won friendships, ones that "grew slowly but with great certainty, as coral is built," as Younger himself put it. These "combines" were the building blocks of camp life, the substitute for the family at home you could no longer turn to. Not that there was anything soft or sentimental about prison friendship: It has an intensity possible only where men are thrown together in such a way that they cannot avoid each other, cannot choose when they will meet, or when separate. Even the husband-wife relationship is less absorbing, less demanding, less taut. You sulked or lost your temper or gave way to almost any emotion quite unashamedly. You had friends in other barracks who you saw on an everyday basis, but it was almost essential to have someone to whom you could come with your ego naked, someone who shared with you your hours of melancholy, nursed you in illness, and accepted, without complaint, the spite you felt in your heart for the other fellows, but which, to preserve the peace, you vented upon him. Time had stood still in the camp. Life there had its own rhythms, its own ups and downs, its fears and its rewards. By and large, if a man kept his head down and his nose clean, didn't get too involved in the antics of the escapees-the "tally-ho boys," as they were known-and concentrated his mind on getting enough to eat, it was a safe life, defined by military rituals and generally conducted within the rule of law. You were at war all right, but conscious of being away from the sternest realities of violence and death. It was just over two years since Younger's Wellington bomber had exploded in midair and he had escaped from the flames by parachuting into northern France. For more than a week he had been on the run, hiding out with the help of the locals, until he was caught after curfew by the police and handed over to the Germans. He had flown many missions-steering through the flak, seeing friends shot down, grateful to make it home in one piece-but now for the first time he looked the enemy in the eye, saw their jackboots and steel helmets, felt the clutch of terror at being alone and in the hands of men who would not hesitate to kill him. On his way by train to his first camp, sharing a compartment with civilians, boys of the Hitler Youth had hissed at him and menacingly fingered their sheathed knives. Only the armed Luftwaffe guards escorting him had kept him from being skinned alive. While the war continued, that hostility was still out there, on the other side of the barbed wire-except now it would be even more intense as a result of the Allied carpet bombing of German cities, and more deadly as the fight for the survival of the fatherland itself began. Behind the wire, life was by no means easy, but it had its sense of security. The horizon was a line of trees, the edge of a seemingly impenetrable forest beyond the perimeter of the camp. In one direction a man could see farther, to mile upon mile of flat and featureless countryside across which a train occasionally puffed. It was a small world, made bearable by comradeship and routine. "We were far from the battle fronts," Younger remembered, and though we heard about the war's changing patterns, it was all too far away to have any sense of reality. We were in continuous suspense, waiting for the one great event that would affect us, so that suspense became the inspiration of our existence, the drive without which we would have sunk into lethargy and decay. There was hope in that suspense-and there was security in the arrival of food, mail, cigarettes and books, above all, books. They were our link with humanity, with established and familiar things, with sanity. They were our escape. Men acquired knowledge and learned to appreciate the arts. There was a daily outpouring of verse and story, of painting, of musical composition, of practical invention, the constant taking and giving of ordinary life. We forgot the crafts of war . Was all this about to end? With mixed feelings of elation and unease, the prisoners realized that the "one great event" their hopes had been pinned on was now upon them. Younger, like every other POW it seems, had been taken into captivity with the immortal words "For you, the war is over." Now that war-with its terrors, its uncertainty, and its potential for instant death-was coming back into his life. In the weeks that followed D-Day the prisoners and their captors battled with propaganda. In their huts the airmen drew up maps of Europe, and with colored pins and strands of blue and red wool they plotted the movement of the Allied front. "What's the latest gen?" was the first whispered question when friends met in the compound or sat down to eat. The guards retaliated with newsreels of the new, pilotless buzz bombs, the V-1s, which were being launched on London and that they claimed would turn the course of the war back in their favor. Richard Passmore realized that he and other long-term prisoners had witnessed trials of the V-1s way back in 1942. They had seen strange objects flying at low level along the Baltic coast and out to sea. The mystery was now explained, and the implications were worrying. The guards never lost an opportunity to boast of these and other unknown new weapons of mass destruction that their beloved fŸhrer had assured them he had in reserve. Nevertheless, the Germans were becoming noticeably more jumpy as the weeks went by. The camp, being exclusively for aircrew, was run by the Luftwaffe, the German equivalent of the RAF. There had always been some mutual understanding and respect between enemies of the same service. The prisoners had even felt sympathy for guards who returned from leave with descriptions of the devastation of German cities by Allied bombing-homes burned out in firestorms, the people living in cellars, deaths in every family. "The sadness rubbed off," Sergeant Vic Gammon remembered. But now there was a new iciness in relations. Tempers frayed more easily, and politeness and respect turned to anger and bitterness. Food supplies were also beginning to run low. The powder-keg conditions that Dixie Deans had feared were becoming a reality. Deans was an ideal man to be in charge of the prisoners at Stalag Luft VI at this time. This was his third camp, and his reputation was growing. There were men here senior in rank to him, but his right to command as the camp's elected Man of Confidence was never challenged.4 It took a special type of individual to maintain control over prisoners of war, who, as a group, could be undisciplined to the point of anarchy. An officer who was good at leading fighting men into battle was often not suited to leadership here. The legendary Douglas Bader-brave and inspirational fighter pilot though he may have been-was too impetuous and too antagonistic for such a job, and in his four years in various prisoner-of-war camps there were more than a few fellow officers who saw him as a liability, as likely to get his men shot as to get them safely home. In the words of one military historian, a successful camp leader had to inspire confidence by showing that he was completely unselfish about food and personal comfort. He had to ensure that everyone in the camp always received a fair share of everything, taking a firm line with those, of no matter what rank, who tried to get more than their share. He had to be indefatigable in negotiating with the enemy to improve conditions and to protect inmates from ill-treatment. He had to bear hunger, cold and other discomforts cheerfully, and by his example help maintain the morale of his fellow prisoners.5 Deans could do all this, and more. There was a presence about him that demanded obedience. Some thought him overbearing, and there were those who referred to him as "the FŸhrer"-though only behind his back. But to most of the men who came into contact with him, his powerful personality combined with an instinctive understanding of human problems made him like a revered headmaster. Younger felt that "any man could take to him a personal trouble and know that when he came away at least some of the burden was transferred to the sturdy shoulders of the camp leader." Deans himself was modest about his ability, putting it down to "a fair degree of confidence, pretty fluent German" for dealing with the enemy and having "my finger on the pulse of the camp."6 Deans's authority was evident on the parade ground. The daily roll calls were always a shambles-deliberately so. Men would stroll from their huts late and in any clothing they cared to put on. Then they would move around to confuse the guards' counts. There would be catcalls and rude songs-anything to annoy the Germans. With one barked order Deans could-if he wished-bring the rabble smartly to attention. He rarely did so, because he considered roll calls a matter for the Germans. But, if in the attempt to gain order, the guards' threats escalated and there was a danger of events getting out of hand, he would act. Younger recalled how "one crackling command brought immediate silence, horseplay ceased and we were instantly transformed into a military assembly." One particular parade stood out in Deans's memory as an indication of the dangers. On an April evening earlier that year the men had been called from their huts for a special assembly. The camp was jittery because an escape had just been foiled, and as they paraded at dusk the first thing the prisoners saw was the show of strength. Steel-helmeted reinforcements had been brought in to bolster the regular guards. They formed a circle around the prisoners and dropped to their knees, machine-guns pointing menacingly from every direction. Richard Passmore could not believe what he was seeing. "Were we about to be mown down?" he asked himself. There was a marked absence of tomfoolery as the count was taken, and an eerie silence as the guards tallied the figures. Younger too waited apprehensively in the ranks as the Adjutant, Major Heinrich, stalked solemnly to the centre of the parade ground. Behind him the camp interpreter marched, with knees thrust high, and halted and turned with clashing heels. Then came Dixie, marching formally, but out of step with the Germans, deliberately dissociating himself from them. From his attitude we knew that the Germans had done something unpleasant and were trying to cover it with this ceremony of self-justification and the reinforcement of guards in case we were not deceived. Heinrich read from a document in slow, somber German. Then the interpreter read the English translation.7 There were sharp intakes of breath as the news sank in of a mass escape at Stalag Luft III, a prisoner-of-war camp for British and American air force officers at Sagan, 100 miles southeast of Berlin. Seventy-six prisoners had escaped. Fifty had been shot dead "while resisting arrest, or attempting a further escape after being recaptured." In the stunned silence, a voice from the ranks asked, "And how many were wounded?" Heinrich shrugged his shoulders. Every man there knew what this meant. They had been murdered. Fifty of them. A few boos broke out, and then there was an instinctive surge forward by the ranks, followed by a roar of almost uncontrollable anger. The ring of guards leveled their machine guns...and Deans's voice rang out. "Stand fast!" he roared. For just one second, according to Passmore, "the situation teetered on the edge of a bloody massacre. Then discipline asserted itself. The ranks stiffened. The danger was over." Deans dismissed the parade, ordering every man to go straight to his hut "and wait there for a time. You are to take no action of any kind." Passmore, streaming away with the others, "stared with hate-filled eyes at the guards, who refused to meet our gaze." Two months later, Deans feared a similar sort of confrontation-but with fatal consequences this time. He could rest assured that there would be no more escape attempts to provoke the Germans-or at least not ones authorized by him. After D-Day the order had been received from London, encoded in letters and in "personal" radio messages on the BBC, that escape attempts were to stop. The end of the war was in sight, and escaping could only jeopardize lives unnecessarily. But Deans remained deeply worried by the mindset revealed by the massacre of the fifty escapees. The incident had confirmed what he had always suspected: that the Germans were capable of almost anything. Others got the message too. Sergeant Cecil Room remembered how the anger that greeted the news of the killings was followed by fear. "It put the wind up us when you thought, my God, the Germans could do this to us."8 Sagan was a warning. It was a sign that the prisoners could expect no quarter in the days ahead before this bloody war was over once and for all. Deans made what preparations he could. In the early hours of June 13 the camp theater-which over the years had provided relief, fun, and precious forgetfulness for actors and audience alike-went up in flames. Hundreds of prisoners in pajamas ran with buckets of water to try to save it, but the wooden hut with its tar paper roof was soon an inferno and then a ruin. Word was circulated that the fire was the result of faulty electricity, but in fact the theater had been sacrificed. The fire had been started deliberately, to conceal from the Germans the illicit removal that night of some parts of an amplifier. These were cannibalized to turn the POWs' radio receiver into a transmitter, which, in an emergency, could be used to send out an SOS. Deans, as he anxiously contemplated the future, at least had a flimsy line of communication established. But, for all the prisoners' concerns, there was jollity in the air at Luft VI for a few brief weeks that summer. The optimists prevailed over the pessimists, the active over the inactive. Passmore indulged himself in the hope that "one day we really should be free again, complete people, no longer truncated. An evening walk around the camp became a must as men, scenting real life again, began to slough off the deadly inertia of prison life." Then again, a man had to be cautious if he were to retain his sanity, and there would be a nodding of wise heads that it might be 1945 before they were liberated. Not one of them, however, could have guessed the full extent of the horrors they would endure before they made it home. For now, however, a hot sun was shining, the days were long and languid, and, despite an epidemic of fleas that had everyone scratching even more than usual, there were things to celebrate. The Americans put out the flags on the Fourth of July, and there were baseball and boxing bouts-and booze. Using the raisins, prunes, and sugar in their Red Cross parcels, the industrious and the desperate found a way of brewing a crude alcohol-"kickapoo joy juice" as some called it. No one took much notice of their camp leader's Independence Day address. They were too drunk. The British were not so fortunate. Illicitly brewed liquor had been stored under floorboards to be brought out to celebrate news of the invasion, but the Germans had found it and, after sampling, confiscated the lot. Not long after Independence Day, with the last echoes of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" gone, a new sound filled the air. No one could miss it. It was the distant rumble of heavy artillery. The Red Army's summer offensive was sweeping the front line through Poland and closer and closer to the border with Germany. Heydekrug and its thousands of prisoners of war were in the way. Deans and his close coterie of commanders had no way of knowing how to react to this. It could be good news-perhaps they were on the point of being released by the Russians. On the other hand, there was every chance that the camp itself was about to become a battleground, with the POWs trapped in the crossfire. Or that the Germans would withdraw but massacre their prisoners before they did so, if for no other reason than to stop them from taking up arms and joining the ranks of the invaders. In which case, what could Deans and his men do to defend themselves? What last-ditch stand could they make, unarmed and unprepared, against guards with machine guns and the defense of their homeland and their fŸhrer at stake? Adolf Hitler took pleasure from the time he spent with his head in the clouds at the Berghof, his southern residence in the town of Berchtesgaden, high in the mountains above Salzburg. There, sitting in a deep, chintz-covered armchair or wandering the terrace, he could gaze out at the panorama of peaks, matching the endless Alpine vista with endless talk. His military commanders often fought to stay awake during the hour-long monologues in which he refought old battles and plotted imaginary new ones, increasingly succumbing to what an attachŽ described as a tendency "to wishful thinking...[as] his contact with reality was slipping away."9 He was there in the summer of 1944 to hear the news that the Allies had stormed the beaches of northern France, and he was back again a month later as it sank in that his personal instruction to prevent "the Anglo-Saxons" (as he called the invaders) from breaking out of the Normandy peninsula could not be obeyed. Contemptuously, he shuffled his pack of generals and field marshals, damning their defeatism, questioning their courage and their loyalty. Then he railed as his army in the east counterattacked the Russians, only to be encircled, outnumbered, and outgunned, unable to dent the Soviet advance. The borders of Germany were about to be breached. It was time he flew his Eagle's Nest. On July 14 he left the Berghof for what would be the last time. Despite persistent rumors and romantic fancies that this would be his chosen last redoubt, a defiant mountain hideaway should the war go badly, his fate always lay elsewhere, and he seemed to know it. Nicolaus von Below, a staff officer from the Luftwaffe who had been attached to the fŸhrer's headquarters for seven years, watched as, on his way to bed, Hitler strolled the length of the Berghof's great hall, stopping at each portrait on the wall and nodding at it as if in farewell. He stooped a little as he walked, his shoulders slumped as never before. The next morning Hitler boarded his plane, and his personal pilot, Hans Baur, headed the four-engined Focke-Wulf Condor north away from Salzburg and over a landscape that was still German, but only minimally. These were no longer the safest of skies for them. For a while Hitler had been the master of a colossal military empire stretching out from Berlin nearly 1,000 miles in any direction-to Athens in the south and to Oslo in the north, to Calais in the west and to the gates of Moscow in the east. But that overblown bubble had shrunk alarmingly. Von Below, seated in the plane that day, knew that it was in the air that the war had already been lost and won. British and American bombers had played the decisive part, knocking out the factories the Luftwaffe depended on to build new aircraft, and then, in huge, unstoppable waves, pulverizing the citizens of German cities from Munich to the Rhine. The blame for all this destruction was directed at the Allied airmen. They were dubbed Terrorflieger -terror flyers-and many of those who were shot down and fell into the hands of German civilians were strung up from lampposts or beaten to death by an angry mob, as many men lucky to be saved from a lynching while in transit and now safely imprisoned at Stalag Luft VI knew only too well. Such actions were illegal-the Geneva Convention specifically outlawed reprisals against prisoners of war. But Hitler and his henchmen connived in this summary injustice. When, a year earlier, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, had heard that police on the ground were moving in to rescue downed airmen from the mob, he issued an instruction that it was not their job "to interfere in clashes between Germans and English and American flyers who have bailed out."10 The calls for revenge could only get louder. Later that day, after four hours in the air, Hitler's plane touched down at Rastenburg in East Prussia, the gloomy complex of concrete bunkers covered with camouflage netting, known as the Wolf's Lair, from which the fŸhrer had directed the invasion of the Soviet Union nearly three years earlier. The prisoners of war of Luft VI were just one hundred miles away to the north. The advance patrols of the Red Army were even closer. In the days that followed, as Hitler and his generals stood around the maps in the operations room and planned the defense of the fatherland, bad news poured in from every direction. On July 17, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Hitler's most talented tactician, was injured, strafed in his open car by Allied fighter planes while driving to the front in France. The only good news was that the line was being held in Italy. German troops had dug in halfway between Rome and Florence, and the American and British advance up the peninsula, which had begun eleven months earlier, seemed to be slowing. The army commander there, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, was summoned from the battlefield for a medal-to be decorated by Hitler personally with the Knight's Cross with Diamonds, Oak Leaves, and Swords. He arrived on July 19. On that same day a significant order was issued from the Wolf's Lair, "concerning preparations for the defense of the Reich."11 It put the German civilian population on a total war footing-as if they had not been in that situation for months already. It restructured the military and civilian administration for fighting the enemy on German soil, and it ordered preparations to be made for evacuations from the east, away from the advancing Russians. Among the instructions to move "foreign labor"-i.e. slave workers-westward, and the civilian population too (as long as they did not panic), item 6(a) called for "preparations for moving prisoners of war to the rear." It was a crucial instruction that was to prolong the war for hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers and airmen, forcing them into misery, starvation, and, in many cases, death. The next day, July 20, was hot. The officers due to attend the midday conference with the fŸhrer stood around in the open air enjoying the warmth of the sun; then Hitler arrived, shook each man by the hand, and led them into the situation room. They seated themselves around a long oak table, and the conference had just begun when a latecomer arrived, having flown in from Berlin only that morning. The man was a war hero, who had lost an eye and several fingers in fighting in North Africa. Hitler shook his hand and ushered him to a seat close by. Ten minutes later there was an explosion. The wooden hut shattered. Amid the smoke, the dust, and the debris, the dying and the badly wounded lay moaning on the floor. But the target of the bomb had escaped. Hitler, his jacket and trousers torn, was hurried away to his private bunker. Though the bomb, hidden in a briefcase, had gone off under the table he was leaning on, he was unmarked. Later it would emerge that his hearing was affected and the nerves of his left arm damaged. It was quickly established that the bomber was that late arrival. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was an aristocratic Prussian who had at first welcomed Hitler's rise to power but had then turned against him, blaming him for the military disaster the country was facing. His conspiracy to overthrow the autocrat and replace him with an administration that could cut a deal with the Allies had been two years in the making. His chance-his invitation to the Wolf's Lair-had come that day for a simple reason: He was Chief of Staff to General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army, the military forces at home that now needed to be drawn into planning because the Russians were about to break onto German soil. Stauffenberg had made an excuse and left the situation room before the bomb exploded, racing to a plane and back to Berlin. Convinced that no one could have survived the blast, he ordered the takeover of the government by officers friendly to his cause. The word that Hitler was alive brought his coup to a close. He was arrested and shot on the spot, but the strands of the conspiracy would take months to unravel. Hundreds of senior officers died in the resulting witch-hunt. For Hitler it was the final proof that the officer class was disloyal and could not be trusted. Von Below thought the fŸhrer was never the same physically after the attack. He was often in pain, his language coarsened, and he was quicker than ever to anger and to threaten. His incipient paranoia and his desire for revenge were sealed in the explosion at Rastenburg. His view of what lay ahead was apocalyptic. After July 20 he told Von Below, "We may go down, but we will take the world down with us." Stauffenberg's assassination attempt had another significant result. His superior officer, General Fromm, was one of the first to be implicated in the plot and executed. Hitler handed over control of the Reserve Army to one of the few men he felt he could still trust-the SS commander, Himmler. His dedicated Nazis ran the concentration camps and administered the "final solution" of the Jews. His secret policemen were the feared Gestapo, his private army the legions of the Waffen SS, who wore a death's-head emblem into battle. He was perhaps the most feared individual in Germany-some said even Hitler was wary of the power he wielded. His new responsibilities would shortly give him nominal control over a group who had, until now, largely been protected from him and his thugs-the Allied prisoners of war. Excerpted from The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe, 1944-1945 by John Nichol, Tony Rennell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xvii
List of Mapsp. xxi
1. The Russians Are Comingp. 1
2. Abandoned to Their Fatep. 31
3. Out into the Coldp. 64
4. Fears of a Massacrep. 91
5. The Retreat from Stalag Luft IVp. 114
6. The Deadly Road to the Westp. 139
7. The Rivers of Humanityp. 166
8. Liberated by the Red Armyp. 204
9. Hostages of Stalinp. 232
10. Waiting for Pattonp. 251
11. The Hell of Fallingbostelp. 286
12. Death by "Friendly Fire"p. 317
13. A German Savior?p. 348
14. Heading for Homep. 372
15. Welcome Backp. 403
Epiloguep. 433
Appendix 1 Chronology of the End of the Second World Warp. 449
Appendix 2 The Yalta Agreement on Prisoners of War, February 1945p. 453
Appendix 3 The Senior American Officer's Complaint About Conditions at Stalag XIIID, Nurembergp. 457
Appendix 4 The Numbers Gamep. 462
Notesp. 467
Bibliographyp. 505
Indexp. 511

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