POW (01/45)

Stalag Luft III (24th January 1945)

Having gained their commissions after being captured Wally Layne along with four Canadians was sent from Stalag 357 to Stalag Luft III, Stalag Luft III being an officer only camp.

Travelling by train and accompanied by an Oberfeldwebel they departed Stalag 357 Fallingbostel on January 22nd, 1945 arriving at Stalag Luft III Sagan two days later.

The Canadians were Lloyd E. “Pete” Peterson, pow number 9630. He was in the RCAF serving with 75 Squadron RAF. He was shot down in Wellington X3205 on September 15th, 1941, attacking Hamburg.

D.G. Mullock was a member of R.C.A.F. 408 Squadron “Goose.”  He was shot down Feb. 25, 1944, in Lancaster DS 791, attacking Augsburg, he was the only survivor of his crew.

H. Cooper POW Number 3462. Service number J 85935 was shot down March 30, 1944, in Halifax HX 272 of 433 Squadron RCAF, target Nurnberg.

James Leslie was shot down Feb. 20, 1944, in Halifax JP121 of 35 Pathfinder Squadron RAF. The target was Stuttgart.

      On this scrap of paper kept by Wally one of his captors, Oberfeldwebel Kurt Rakuschan, has listed the outgoing prisoners.

On arrival at Stalag Luft III, the new arrivals found that the atmosphere inside the camp was tense.  Some days previously the camp’s clandestine radio that was monitoring the B.B.C. reported that the Red Army, led by Marshall Zhukov was crossing the River Oder.  Their advance had brought them to within 80 miles to the east of Sagan and was expected to reach Stalag Luft III in the next couple of days.

Ill prepared for a forced march due to months or years of incarceration the prisoners had been making whatever preparations they could for the eventuality of an evacuation of the camp.  The order came at 9.00 p.m. Saturday, January 27th, 1945 to the effect that the prisoners were to prepare for immediate evacuation bringing with them only what they could carry.

The camp flew into a hive of activity, bed boards, beds, and furniture were torn apart to make sleds.  The insides of the huts themselves were torn down and doors pulled from their hinges to fashion more.

Many prisoners stuffed themselves with their previously sacred food reserves which they would be unable to carry.  For once fuel was not in short supply, walls were torn down to feed the stoves in which cakes were baked from flour and the contents of Red Cross parcels that were to be consumed on the way.

Treasured belongings were abandoned and all of the prisoners wore as much clothing as possible with most carrying a change of clothing.  Pockets were stuffed with the international currency of cigarettes and food to be eaten on the way.  Prior to their departure, each prisoner was issued with a 10 lb. Red Cross parcel.

After a stay of just 4 days at Stalag Luft III, Wally’s third evacuation from the advancing Red Army began but this one was on foot.  In blizzard conditions and with temperatures of –25C (-13F) the 1,100 or so occupants the East Compound departed at 0600 hours on January 28th, 1945.

                              From “Handle With Care” by R. Anderson and D. Westmacott.

The kriegies set out in good spirits pleased to be outside of the wire.  Initially, the going was good in 6” of crisp snow, but soon the harsh environment and the weakened conditions of the P.O.W.’s took its toll.  Loads had to be lightened as fatigue set in and soon the roadside was littered cartons of cigarettes, Red Cross parcels, books, and items the prisoners considered disposable.

Taken with a clandestine camera a group of prisoners trudges along pulling their improvised sled.

Eventually, they came across long stretches of road that had been swept free of snow by the wind.  This rendered the sleds useless and more precious items of survival had to be abandoned.

The guards who were in much lower spirits than the prisoners were composed of men considered too old or otherwise unfit for front-line service.  Their plight was as bad as the prisoners as they too were carrying full kit.  In many cases, the prisoners helped the guards by carrying their rifles and rucksacks.

   Exhausted prisoners take a break in the snow.

pow in snow

This painting by Stan Johnson depicts Allied prisoners on the march in January 1945

No provision for billeting or feeding of the prisoners had been made by the Germans. The prisoners were marched 10 to 20 miles a day – resting in factories, churches, barns and even in the open.  The forced march came to an end after 6 days.  The prisoners trekked  60 miles during one of the harshest winters Germany experienced in the twentieth century finally arriving at Spremberg.

An account of the evacuation of Stalag Luft III can be read here, http://www.trasksdad.com/PopsProgress/march_1.htm

Group Captain D.E.L. Wilson the Senior British Officer at Stalag Luft III wrote an official report on the evacuation of the camp which can be viewed here: http://www.trasksdad.com/PopsProgress/Stalag3March/March.html

At Spremburg the exhausted prisoners were loaded into the familiar “Forty Hommes eight Chevaux” cattle trucks with no water, no light and no straw for bedding.  Departing Spremburg on February 2nd, 1945 they endured a miserable journey with many of the men suffering from dysentery, typhoid, and typhus that struck them via their lice covered bodies.

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