POW (02/45)

Marlag-Milag Nord (4th February 1945)

Arriving at Tarmstedt on the afternoon of February 4th they were marched to Marlag-Milag Nord prison camp which they found was in a terrible state.  Marlag-Milag had previously been declared as unfit and unsanitary by representatives of the Red Cross.

The previous occupants had been Merchant Navy seamen who on being evacuated assumed that the camp was to be used to house German troops.  Consequently in order to deny the Germans any comfort in the camp the Merchant Navy men went on a wave of destruction and wrecked the camp.

Throughout the camp windows had been broken, stoves had been smashed, there were piles of rubbish everywhere.  Everything was wet from the ever leaking roofs of the huts.  As there were no beds the prisoners had to make do with sleeping on the floor on wet wood shavings.

Wally was assigned to Block 22 “Room 3. ”   There were no separate rooms in the block, “Room 3” was a way of individualizing the messes as had been done at Sagan.

Over the next few days, working parties toiled to improve their situation.  An improvement to the primitive sanitation systems was made, a high priority due to the number of men with diarrhea and other ailments.  There existed only a single outside shower for the whole camp.

Stoves were repaired, leaks in roofs were fixed and broken windows blocked off.  Fuel for the stoves became such a problem that eventually the Germans permitted wood-gathering parties to leave the compound under escort.

By February 12th Red Cross parcels had begun to arrive which helped to alleviate the prisoner’s situation.

A rainy February drags on with the occasional issue of Red Cross rations.  The prisoners see vast amounts of Allied aircraft passing over head which does wonders for their morale.  Not so good for morale was the total absence of mail.

Due to the collapse of the German infrastructure and the constant movement of the prisoners to different camps, mail did not catch up with the prisoners.  However Wally’s Sister and Brother-in-law managed to receive a post card from Wally that was sent from Marlag-Milag.

Written at Stalag Luft 3  Feb 24/45 Marlag Kriegsgefangenlager

Dear I & W.  I hope you are well I am quite fit, I’ve been doing quite a lot of travelling since I wrote you last, including a lot of hiking but we seem more or less settled here now for better or worse.  I have had one letter from Joan this year shall be glad to hear from all of you, I had to leave all my mail behind it was a bad blow but I just couldn’t carry it, I haven’t received any cigs for ages hope some come along. 

Lots of love W.

With the approach of better weather in March the contents of the huts are brought outside.  Bedding and clothing were cleaned and given a well-needed airing. Wooding expeditions were still exploring the countryside for fuel. The work was tiring for men unaccustomed to physical labour but the prisoners were keen to get out of the compound and enjoy the countryside in spring time.

In an undated letter from Marlag-Milag Wally writes to Joan.

P.O.W. Air Mail letter  

My dearest Joan, I hope you are well, I am ok, I have had a bad cold and it has made my voice change to a whisper, but otherwise I am ok.  I haven’t received any mail for ages now but I am not worried about it as I expect to be home before many more months are over, maybe I shall be back for the start of the fishing season.  We are having very nice weather just now I hope it keeps on.  Monty is showing the way to go home now isn’t he.  How is David, I am longing to see him, give him a good hiding for me.  I often wonder about Bern Twilley’ I expect he is making a name for himself, I hope he does.  I am in the same room as S/Ldr Gunter, he and I were at the same place in England do you remember the book he lent me “I Bought a Mountain,”  we thought it very good.  Are you still sending parcels I haven’t had any for ages now, don’t suppose I shall get any more.  We are living on American Red + parcels now and they have 100 cigs in them so I am ok for smokes at the moment.  I hope some more parcels come along soon tho’ as we are getting on the short side,  Everyone here is in a very optimistic mood I think the moral is higher than D Day even.  I am doing a lot of reading but it is all Edgar Wallace style of thing, nothing very good.   We have bugs here, I don’t go much on them and the hotter the weather the worse they will get. 

All my love to both of you.  Walt.

In order to discourage escape, the prisoner’s captors began piercing all of the cans of food supplied by the Red Cross.  Eventually, all cans were delivered opened and as the contents would not keep the prisoners indulged in a food “bash” to make use of what could be salvaged.

The prisoner’s morale would rise and fall.  The low spirits brought on by the Germans opening of the food cans was countered with the sight of vast amounts of Allied aircraft and news from the hidden camp radio.  The prisoner’s morale was given a huge boost when on Saturday, March 24 the camp’s Adjutant Squadron Leader Jennens announced that the highly unpopular, Senior British Officer (SBO) Group Captain D.E.L. Wilson, was being purged by the Germans to Oflag IX-A a camp for senior British Officers at Spangenberg Castle.  His departure from the camp was greeted with loud cheers and scenes of jubilation from his fellow prisoners.

Reports were coming in of Allied forces had reached Bremen and Frankfurt-am-Main and of the Rhine having been crossed.  Rumours were abundant. Some stated that the guards would leave and abandon them in place.  Others suggested they were to be moved to Denmark and used as hostages, while other theorized they would be evacuated once again.

The Spring March (9th April 1945)

Their questions were answered during the afternoon of April 9th, 1945.  The Senior British Officer was called before the camp Kommandant and told that the Germans intended to evacuate the Royal Navy and RAF prisoners to Lubeck and to make ready for an immediate departure.  The Senior British Officer informed the Kommandant that he would be held responsible for their safety and departed to make arrangements.

He instructed the prisoners to go slow and delay their preparations as much as possible in the hope that the advancing Allied forces would overtake them.  The prisoners indulged in more food “bashes” as they prepared, eating the food reserves that they could not carry.  Wheeled vehicles were constructed for carrying their kit and each prisoner was issued with 2 Red Cross parcels that evening.

So commenced Wally’s fourth evacuation in the face of an invading army.  This time the invading army was British and the evacuation was eastward.  The prisoners finally left Marlag-Milag at 0900 hours the following morning in foggy weather.  The columns were split up into squadrons at 200-yard intervals in case of sudden attack from the air.

The senior officers and interpreters were in the rear.  The Germans provided some horse and carts to carry prisoners possessions and lots were drawn as to who’s articles were carried with the lucky ones walking unencumbered.

The column arrived at Zeven at 1800 hours and after a short rest moved on to Heeslingen where at 2000 hours where they prepared to sleep in an open field.  The prisoners were able to barter with local civilians for eggs and bread. Two prisoners were shot in the leg when acquiring straw for bedding.  A column of prisoners behind Wally’s was strafed by their own fighters killing  3 Marlag Naval Officers and wounding 4 others.

In lovely weather, the column of shirt-sleeved prisoners trudged slowly in a north-easterly direction with little or no control by their dejected captors.    When night came and barns could not be found, the prisoners slept in open fields under shelters they erected.

Foraging around the countryside the prisoners traded their cigarettes and tins of coffee with the locals for eggs, bread, and potatoes.  Prams, bicycles, wheelbarrows, and hand carts, were obtained either by theft or barter. In an effort to keep the column moving the German Kommandant commandeered horse drawn wagons, these too were loaded with the prisoner’s rucksacks.

On April 15th, 1945 they reached the River Elbe at Cranz just south of Hamburg and preparations were made for a night”s stay on the waterfront of the town.

The crossing of the mile wide river to Blankenese was made the following day in two ferry boats, the Mozart and the Frank Schubert.  During one of the crossing air raid sirens sounded which caused a great deal of concern.  A flight of 6 Typhoons was spotted but fortunately, they went on to ply their trade elsewhere.

The trek continued slowly onwards.   The camp’s radio was monitored twice daily with continuing good news.  “The British had occupied Luneburg,”  “The Russians were assaulting Berlin.”  Allied air activity was seen striking ground targets with no opposition from the Luftwaffe.

April 23rd, 1945 saw them arrive at Hamberge on the outskirts of Lubeck.  The prisoners went through their regular routines of forage and setting up mess having been billeted in barns throughout the town.

At this time their supposed destination was Lubeck but the Senior British Officer had received a report of typhus in the camp at Lubeck, along with food shortages, and a city swollen with refugees.    A decision was taken that the Senior British Officer and other high ranking officers would journey to Lubeck and investigate conditions there.

The prisoners were to stay where they were until thing got settled.  The following day a supply of American Red Cross parcels arrived from Lubeck along with a rare issue of German rations comprised of 1 tin of bread per man and a little wurst.

On April 25th, 1945 the last of Luftwaffe guards left for more active duty.  Many of these guards had been with the R.A.F. men for a considerable time and had treated them well.  The prisoners gave the guards they liked “Good Goon Chits” as a pass in the event of their captivity.  Goon being a prisoners term for a guard.

The stay at Hamberge covered 5 nights until Saturday, April 28th, 1945 when the prisoners departed in the morning for accommodation arranged for them at a large estate near Trenthorst just 6 miles away.  After a 5-hour march, Trenthorst was reached and the prisoners 120-mile journey was at an end.

Trenthorst was a large estate that was owned by a German business tycoon.  It consisted of large barns, a lake, and fields full of pedigree cattle. The prisoners settled down to await the arrival of British troops which eventually came at 1 p.m. on 2nd May 1945

The arrival of a  British armoured car that drove into the village of Trenthorst sent the prisoners into a frenzy of joy.  The occupants of the vehicle were mobbed by the freed prisoners who hastily rounded up the remaining guards.  Group Captain Wray took the surrender of the German guards, and in doing so borrowing Wally’s hat for the occasion.

In his book “Goon In The Block” Flight Lieutenant Don Edy, Hurricane Pilot of RAF No 33 SQN, North Africa, 1941/42 and POW Stalag Luft III, 1943/45 wrote the following about the freeing of the prisoners.

“Nearing Lubeck, Group Captain Wray spent the 2nd day of that stop traveling over the countryside in a motorcycle side-car, looking for a suitable place for us to sit out the rest of the war.  He found it in the small estate at Trenthorst which belonged to the brother of the famous German, General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. 

It was ideal for our purposes. There was an enormous 2-storied barn with a huge loft, filled with straw. Half of us moved up there and slept very comfortably. The rest of the boys found good places to stay in the other building. We set up our own cooking apparatus in the barnyard and all in all the arrangements were satisfactory. 

It didn’t take the Red Cross long to find us again and this time they not only sent parcels, but they sent bags of flour. The Germans located a small bakery in a village and some of our men immediately set out to bake. That night we had fresh white bread, the first since I had left Cairo and it tasted like cake to me.  Incidentally, the drivers of the Red Cross trucks were prisoners who had volunteered for the job. They spent the war driving all over Germany and ran all kinds of risks from the fighting. 

Nearly half the camp had been billeted at another farm 1/2 a mile down the road so we were now split up. German soldiers began filtering through our camp in small groups and we eyed them warily. They were getting away from our advancing armies and we couldn’t be sure what mood they were in. Some were S.S. troops, rough looking customers to say the least, but mostly they passed through quietly and some even spoke to us, saying things like “You’ll be free soon”, or “Your friends are coming”. They carried very little equipment and certainly were not in any kind of an organized retreat. It looked like a complete rout. 

It rained, at last, the first day at Trenthorst, and continued all through the night and most of the next day, but now we were undercover and didn’t particularly care. After the weather cleared I explored the estate and found it a lovely little place.  There was a small lake in the center of the grounds and the buildings we occupied were on its edge. All around us the land was heavily wooded and I walked around the lake on pleasant paths and through the woods. 

By this time Spring had really arrived and the trees and bushes were in full leaf. It was a wonderful feeling to be alone in the woods again, and the war seemed unreal and far away. Actually, our release was an anti-climax. I don’t know what I expected, but I guess I thought the armies would come busting through with tanks and there would be hell to pay for a while. It was far different from that. 

During the nights of May 1st and 2nd, we listened to a terrific barrage of guns and bombs and knew the British army was crossing the Elbe, the last real barrier between us. In the morning the sounds of the battle grew louder and Spitfires appeared over us. This was a sure sign the troops were not far away as these planes were used mostly in close support with the fighting troops. 

Trenthorst was between 2 main highways and as the day progressed we could follow the sounds of the battle on both sides until we were certain they had passed us by. We lined the road west of the estate like children waiting for the Santa Claus parade, and sure enough, just about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, an armoured car came careening down the road with Bill Jennins hanging onto the back for dear life. 

The army arrived at the other camp first and then this car, with only a driver and a Junior Officer in it, hurried on to officially release the rest of us.  We cheered like mad and swamped the car trying to shake the hands of the men in it or to get their autograph, but the demonstration was more one of exuberance than relief. We had known for days our release was certain and this armoured car was just the proof of it. It was good to hear the Lieutenant call up his unit on the radio and tell them we were all safe.  We knew the news would be on the airwaves for home that night. 

Our guards disappeared at the first sign of the British, but now they came back to the camp, having nowhere else to go, and we took them prisoner. There was a lot of satisfaction in this, and we soon had several hundred German soldiers under loose guard and a large collection of arms.  It was funny to see some of the scruffy ex-prisoners strutting around loaded down with pistols, rifles, knives, hand grenades and what have you.” 

On scraps of paper, Wally was able to notify his wife of his release although he was home again before the letters arrived.

May 2/45

Hello dearest was relieved today at I o’clock, was fishing in a lake with a bent pin at the time.  Hope to home very shortly.  I am very fit and well, have been eating a lot just lately.  Cant think of much to say, I guess I am too excited, I’ve gone right off my food.  An armoured car came along, gosh were we glad to see it. 

All my love Walt.

Trenthorst   May 3/45

My dearest Joan

I shall be seeing you in a very short space of time.  We were relieved by the British Army yesterday, and hope to be sent home in two or three days time.  I am very fit and well and have nothing wrong with myself at all.     There are stories going around that we shall be flown home.

 All my love, Walter

The stories of being flown home were correct.  After a two-day wait, Wally’s group of repatriated prisoners were trucked in convoy to Baghurst near Rheine,  Belgium.  From there they were flown to No 116 PRC  (Personnel Reception Centre) at Cosford.

Wally’s last wartime letter to  Joan was sent from Baghurst.

Regular British Air Mail Letter

 Baghurst (or Borghorst) Rheine May 7/45 

I hope you are well, I expect you have received my other notes saying I was liberated.  The army caught up with us about ten miles SW of Lubeck and since then we have been travelling thro’ Germany by lorry, we hope to get a plane sometime this week and fly over, I reckon we shall be together before another seven days are over. 

I am very fit indeed, I have had plenty of  Red + food during the last two months and have been sleeping in fields and it has really built me up, you need have no worries about my health altho’ a a lot of our fellows have had a rough time.  I met Robbie last night at one place we came thro’ he looked really bad but I guess he will pick up after a months leave.  

I have just had my first bath since leaving England, you have no idea how marvelous it was, but I feel quite weak after it.  I have had no mail from you this year but those things don’t matter.

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An unkempt Wally photographed by the intelligence services on his repatriation. >> POW Log