[Watercolour with pen and ink heightened with white 32.6 x 48 cm, AWM ART 25519]
[Army Museum of Western Australia]
[Medium unknown, 12.3 x 15.5 cm, AWMART 2857]
Some 5000 Australian soldiers arrived in Germany in 1941 after long journeys through Eastern Europe from Greece. In 1943 another 1000 men crossed the Alps from Italy. They were held mainly in closely guarded camps known as ‘Stalags’. As well, 1400 Australian airmen who had drifted down by parachute into enemy-held territory were held in special POW camps in Germany known as ‘Stalag Luft’ (air camps).
To most Australians, their understanding of the POW experience in Europe has been dominated by the stories of escape attempts. Soldiers and sailors captured in Greece and North Africa, and airmen who fell into enemy hands over Europe, have been romanticized in films and books as they dug tunnels, joined local partisan groups and made daring escapes through resistance channels.
However, many of the men, were recaptured, some were executed and others died during these escapes. Just as harrowing, but less well known, were their experiences on the forced marches during the last months of the war as Russian and Allied troops crossed the German border.
As the Allies advanced further and further into Germany, the Germans became more determined to keep their prisoners out of Allied hands. The airmen, particularly valuable captives, were some of the first to be moved away from the advancing troops. The prisoners at Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug, Australians among them, were evacuated late in 1944 as the Russian armies advanced on Memel on the Baltic Sea coast. Forced into the holds of ships with only the food they were carrying and nothing but seawater to drink, the men spent three cramped nights crossing the Baltic to Swinemunde. There they were transferred into cattle trucks and transported to the railway station 4 kilometres from Stalag Luft IV at Gross Ychow. On arrival, they were handcuffed in pairs and ordered to quick march to the camp with their heavy packs. Many of the exhausted and sick men had to jettison their packs and others who stumbled were ‘clubbed with a rifle butt or savaged by dogs’. Early in February 1945 the man were moved again. They marched more than 500 kilometres to Fallingbostel where they arrived on 22 March. It was only temporary and again many of them were moved towards the Elbe River. Hungry, exhausted and caught between opposing armies the men were attacked from Allied aircraft which mistook them for German troops. Finally, on 16 April 1945, the POWs, many of whom were Australians and New Zealanders, were rescued by units of the Second British Army. Stalag 357 in Oeerbke and Stalag XIb in Fallingbostel, were found by the British to be virtually uninhabitable and so the POWs were accommodated in tents for their last night in camp.
Early in 1945, when the Germans were being driven back along their Eastern and Western fronts, Allied troops moved towards the POW camps. Their German captors began a series of forced marches with the POWs from the camps into the heart of Germany. In the bitterly cold German winter, prisoners from Stalag VIIC at Sagan on the eastern border of Germany were forced to set out on a 500-kilometer march to Duderstadt. In February another group set off in a heavy snowstorm from Stalag VIIIA at Gorlitz towards Duderstadt. On 22 January men from the POW camp at Lamsdorf set off to march to Gorlitz, nearly 300 kilometers away. They arrived there on 3 February and with the men from Stalag VIIIA at Gorlitz, were all moved on to Meningen where the column of POWs was split into three groups.
On 8 February 1945, a group of Allied POWs from Stalag VIIIC were marched 588 kilometres to Stalag IXB, near Bad Orb arriving there on 14 March 1945. By then, hundreds of thousands of POWs were being marched all over Germany as the Allies closed in.
The prisoners usually had no idea where or why they were marching and their experiences varied widely. When it was possible they were accommodated in barracks, empty factories, village halls, barns or even in the open air, despite the freezing temperatures. The men tried to carry their few possessions on sleds and wagons they had constructed but many of their conveyances collapsed during the march and the possessions they couldn’t carry had to be abandoned at the side of the road.
Groups of the cold and hungry marchers, many of them suffering from frostbite, were eventually left at Muhlberg, Barth and Luckenwalde but many Australians, including those from Sagan, Lamsdorf and Heydekrug were in groups that were still marching when they were liberated.
Of those Australians taken prisoner by the Italians and Germans, 265 died in captivity. Of the remainder, 1329 were returned in prisoner exchanges during hostilities and the rest were evacuated to England soon after liberation.