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Death March Across Germany

Discussion in 'Western Europe 1943 - 1945' started by JCFalkenbergIII, Apr 6, 2008.

  1. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Death March Across Germany
    By Gary Turbak

    Say the phrase "Death March", and most Americans respond with a single word: Bataan. When Japanese troops over ran the Phillipines in 1942, they forced thousands of GIs and Filipino soldiers to march across 60 miles of Bataan Penninsula in tropical heat with little or no food and water. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos died in the five - ten trek that came to be called the Battan Death March, one of the greatest atrocities ever perpetrated against American fighting men.

    But there was another Death March inflicted upon American POWs during World War II - a journey that stretched hundreds of miles and lasted nearly three months. It was an odessey undertaken in the heart of a terrible German winter fraught with sickness, death and cruelty. Though experienced by thousands of GIs it was all but forgotten by their countrymen.


    STALAG IN POLAND


    By early 1945, the war was going badly for the Germans, with Allied Forces poised to over run Hitler's homeland. As the Russian Army approached from the east, the Germans decided to move the occupants of certain POW camp, called Stalags, farther west.

    Every American POW who experienced this evacuation has his own unique tale of misery, but none is more gripping than the incredible Death March made by the men of Stalag Luft IV. ("Luft means "air" in German, and it designated a campairmen.)

    Stalag Luft IV -- in eastern Prussia, part of what is now Poland -- held an estimated 9,000 - 10,000 POWs. The food was lousy, but it did exist, and the Red cross Parcels that arrived with some regularity contained enough additional nourishment to keep most of the men fairly healthy. Soup was abundant.

    The prisoners, almost exclusively NCOs and other enlisted personnel, (including some Canadian and British airmen), were not made to work. Some medical care was available. Clothing was adequate. "Life in the camp was at least tolerable," recalls former POW Joe O"Donnell. "Compared to the march, it was a snap."

    In late January 1945, the Stalag Luft IV airmen could see the distant flash of the artillery fire, which meant an advanceing front - and probably their liberation - were not far away. Then came the evacuation order and the departure of sick and wounded prisoners by train. More men went by rail a few days later. Finally, on February 6, 1945 the remaining POWs set out on foot. No one knows for sure, but they probably numbered about 6,000.

    GIs were given access to stored Red Cross parcels, A tremendous windfall of food and other essentials, and many men started out bearing heavy loads. After a few miles, however, the roadside became littered with items too heavy -- or seemily to unimportant -- to carry. After all, their captors had told them the march would last only three days.

    German guards divided the POWs into groups of 250 to 300, not all of which traveled the same route or at the same pace. The result was a diverging, converging living river of men that flowed slowly but predictably west and (later) south.

    During the day, most prisoners marched four or five abreast, and at night were herded into nearby barns. With luck, a bed consisted of straw on a barn floor. Some times, however, the Germans withheld clean straw, saying the men would contaminate it and make it unfit for livestock use. On occasion, so many men crowded into a barn that some had to sleep standing up. And if no barn was available, they bivouacked in a field or forest.


    EATING RAW RATS


    Water (often contaminated) was generally available, but the Germans provided little food. GIs usually scrounged their own meals --and the firewood to cook them -- often finding no more than a potato or kohlrabi to boil. On the irregular occasions when Red Cross parcels arrived the GIs traded cigarettes and other items to guards and civilians for delacacies like eggs and milk.

    Some men resorted to stealing from pigs the feed that had been thrown to them and to grazing like cows on roadside grass. A handfull of stolen grain, eaten while marching, provided many a mid-day meal.

    The acquisition of a chicken generated great excitement, but the little meat available more likely came from a farmer's cat or dog. T.D. Cooke tells of appropriating a goose and a rabbit from one farm. "We couldn't cook either one for about three days, and then we could only get it warm, but we ate both right down to the bones -- then we ate the bones. "Some even driven to eat uncooked rats.

    Physician Leslie Caplan, one of the few officers on the trek, later calculated that the rations provided by the Germans provided 770 mostly carbohydrate calories daily, and the Red Cross parcels, when they were available, added perhaps 500 to 600 more calories.

    Troops often marched all day with little or no mid-day food, water or rest. Adding to the misery was one of Germany's coldest winters ever. Snow piled knee-deep at times, and temperatures plunged well below zero. Under these conditions, virtually all marchers grew gaunt and weak.

    Virtually every POW became infected with lice. On sunny days, the men stripped to heir waist and took turns removing the tiny livestock from one another. "I had no stethoscope," Caplan later wrote, "so [to examine someone] I would kneel by the patient, expose his chest, scrape off the lice, then place my ear directly on his chest and listen."


    RAMPANT DYSENTERY


    Diseases -- pneumonia, diphtheria, pellagra, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis and others -- ran rampant, but the most ubiquitous medical problem was dysentery, often acquired by drinking contaminated water.

    "Some men drank from ditches that others had used as latrines," recalled Caplan. Dysenterey made bowel movements frequent, bloody and uncontrollable. Men were often forced to sleep on the ground covered with feces of those who passed before them. Desperate for relief, they chewed on charcoal embers from the evening cooking fires. Some men welcomed the frequent foodless days because it made the dysentery less severe.

    Blisters, abscesses, and frostbite also became epidemic. Injuries often turned gangerous. Medical care remained essentially nonexisdtent. "As a medical experience, the march was nightmarish," Caplan wrote "our sanitation approached medieval standards, and the inevitable result was disease, suffering and death.

    The Germans sometimes provided a wagon for the sick, but there was never enough room. When a GI collapsed and could not march, he was put on the wagon and the least - sick rider had to get off. Severely ill GIs were sometimes delivered to hospitals passed en route -- and usually never seen again. Straggling marchers were sometimes escorted, by guards into the woods and executed. "Often, there was a shot, and the German guard came back to the formation alone," recalls Karl Haeuser.

    Throughout the ordeal, marchers hung together, helping each other. They quickly developed a buddy system in which two to four men ate and slept together and looked for one another. Many survivors credit their combine (as these groups were called) with saving their lives. When the Germans produced a wagon for carrying the sick but no horse to pull it, weary GIs stepped into the yokes.

    At night, aching and tired men carried their dysenteric comrades to the latrine. "Even beyond our combine buddy system, everyone tried to help everyone else." says O'Donnell.

    The Death March was not without it's lighter moments, however. John Kempf tells of two POWs who ran, against a guard's wishes, to the bottom of a muddy slope to grab a choice piece of firewood'. In pursuing them, the irate guard slipped and jammmed his rifle barrel into the mud -- just before the weapon discharged, splitting the barrel wide open.

    On another occasion, POW Clair Miller traded a chocolate bar from a Red Cross package to a German woman for two loaves of bread. She probably had no way of translating the label on the chocolate that read Ex-Lax.


    BLACK COMEDY


    Day after torturous day, the shoe leather express continued. In late March, weary GIs arrived at their supposed destination, two stalags near Falling Bostel in north central Germany. The camp's sights and smells -- of food and smoke from warm stoves -- set up this bizarre situation: POWs inside the camps wanted to get out, and the weary, starving men from Stalag Luft IV wanted desperately to get in.

    And for a time, they did, with some of the men taking their first shower in nearly two months as part of a delousing regimen. But these camps were already crowded, and there were no quarters for the marchers. Permanent residents received regular meals, but transients were forced to fend for themselves, much as they had done on the road. O'Donnell recalls following a Russian prisoner around, picking up the discarded kohlrabi skins the man threw to the ground.

    After only about a week, even this respite ended. With British and American troops approaching, guards mustered the men from Stalag Luft IV out of camp (which was liberated a few days later) and set them to marching again. Incredibly, they doubled back on their earlier route, covering many miles a second time. For several more weeks, the great march continued as a kind of black comedy that saw the weary GIs herded first in one direction, then another, depending on the position of the advancing Allied forces.


    FINALLY FREEDOM


    Eventually, however, the long-awaited liberation came -- in various ways. Some GIs escaped and hid out until they could find an Allied unit. Three such airmen even stole a twin-engine plane and flew to France. One POW appropriated a farmer's horse and rode towards approaching U.S. forces -- with the steed's irate owner not far behind.

    Other GIs had the relative misfortune to be "liberated" by the Russians, which sometimes meant additional days of confinement at Soviet hands. Most of the POWs, however, simply marched into the glorious presence of American or British forces.

    Although these GIs had anticipated deliverence. their bliss was without bounds. "We were elated beyond words," says O'Donnell. "It was a tremendous joy." Finally, in the Spring of 1945, the hideous march was over. From beginning to end it spanned 86 days and we estimated 600 miles. Many survivors went from 150 pounds or so to perhaps 90 and suffered injuries and illnesses that plaque them their entire lives. Worst of all, several hundred American soldiers (possibly as many as 1,300) died on this pointless pilgrimage to nowhere. The overall measure of misery remains incalculable.

    Though often overlooked by history, the Death March across Germany ranks as one of the most outrageous cruelties ever committed against American fighting men. Fittingly, a memorial to these soldiers now stands on the Polish ground where Stalag Luft IV once stood.
     
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  2. C.Evans

    C.Evans Expert

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    Well said JC, well said. Thanks for bringing this to our attention by posting the story.
     
  3. PzJgr

    PzJgr Drill Instructor Patron  

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    Agreed. I did not know about this either
     
  4. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    My pleasure. If you want to learn more on Allied POWS look for a book entitled : "The Last Escape, The Untold Story of Alled Prisoners of War in Europe 1944-1945" by John Nichol and Tony Rennell. Its a good read and has alot of information on the treatment of Allied POWs by the Germans and when "Liberated" by the USSR.
     
  5. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    One of the more sad instances is about one column of prisoners being strafed by mistake by RAF Fighters [​IMG]. And the pilot's reaction after landing and finding out who they stafed.
     
  6. zippo

    zippo Member

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    Thanks for sharing this Story JC. It's new to me, and fascinating.
     
  7. C.Evans

    C.Evans Expert

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    Thanks again JC and also for the name of that book. It will be something to look forward to reading. Also will give me an excuse to go to Barnes and Nobles bookstore to see if they can get a copy of it?
     
  8. Zwingli

    Zwingli Member

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    My father was also on this march which they also referred to as the "Horror March" They left Stalag Luft 111 at the end of January and ended up in Lubeck where they were finally liberated. He tells of being strafed by 2 RAF ground attack Typhoons and watching one POW who had not taken cover having his legs torn off by the first volley of fire killing him and two of his comrades.

    Leslie
     
  9. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    The March" refers to a series of death marches during the final stages of the Second World War in Europe. Over 80,000 Allied PoWs were force-marched westward across Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany in appalling winter conditions, lasting about four months from January to April 1945 (there were 257,000 British and American prisoners of war in total in German prisons). It has been called various names: "The Great March West", "The Long March", "The Long Walk", "The Long Trek", "The Black March", "The Bread March", but most survivors just called it "The March". From Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow in Pomerania the prisoners faced a 500 mile trek in blizzard conditions across Germany in which hundreds died. One of the marches from Stalag VIII-B was called "The Lamsdorf Death March" and it came very close to the Bataan Death March in percentage of mortality rates.[1]

    [As the Soviet army was advancing on Poland, the Nazis made the decision to evacuate the PoW camps to prevent the liberation of the prisoners by the Russians. During this period, also hundreds of thousands of German civilians, most of them women and children, as well as civilians of other nationalities, were making their way westward in the snow and freezing weather and many died.

    On 19 July 1944 Hitler issued an order from his headquarter Wolfsschanze, some 100 miles west of Stalag Luft VI "concerning preparations for the defense of the Reich". It put the German civilian population on a total war footing and issued instructions for preparations for evacuations of 'foreign labor' (slave labor) and civilians away from the advancing Soviet army in the east. Item 6(a) called for "preparations for moving prisoners of war to the rear" which 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. In the later stages of the war there were great concerns over the motives for moving the prisoners westwards. Rumors abounded that they would be held hostage to help with a peace deal with the Allies or that they were being moved towards concentration camps such as Belsen to be exterminated in revenge for the bombing of German cities such as Berlin and Dresden - (the German name for the Allied airmen was "terrorfliers"). There were also claims that they were being forced marched to their deaths, that there were plans for the SS to murder them and claims that Hitler was planning to stage a 'last redoubt' by moving 35,000 hostages to the Bavarian mountains to make a last stand. This claim was backed up by Gottlob Berger, the SS general that Himmler had placed in command of the POW camps in the autumn of 1944. In 1948 he informed an American judge in Nuremberg concerning Hitler's plans for the 35,000 prisoners saying that if a peace deal failed Hitler had given the order for them to be executed. Himmler was also planning peace deals with the Allies and he had set up a new headquarters in a castle on the Bay of Lubeck on the north German coast and there were rumors that parts of the German army would make a last stand here.[2] Thus there were great concerns that the prisoners were being marched towards Belsen in the north and then some onto Himmler's 'last redoubt' on the Baltic coast and towards Stalag VII-A at Moosburg in Bavaria near Hitler's 'last redoubt' in the south.

    Main Allied POW evacuation routes to the west

    There were three main Allied POW evacuation routes to the west, which included:-
    The northern route starting from Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug in East Prussia, via Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow, Pomerania via Stettin to Stalag XI-B and Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel. Some prisoners were marched from here at the end of the war towards Lubeck.
    The central route started from Stalag Luft 7 at Bankau, near Kreuzburg in Silesia (now Poland), via Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf, to Stalag VIII-A Görlitz, then ending at Stalag III-A at Luckenwalde, 30 km south of Berlin.
    The southern route started at Stalag VIII-B (formerly Stalag VIII-D) at Teschen (not far from Auschwitz) which led through Czechoslovakia, towards Stalag XIII-D at Nuremberg and then onto Stalag VII-A at Moosburg in Bavaria.
    The first Allied POW camp evacuation began in July 1944 from Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug , when thousands of British and American POWs were force marched either to Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow (involving a 60hr journey by ship) to Swinemunde), or by force march and cattle train to Stalag XX-A at Thorn in Poland.

    The March

    January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the twentieth century, with blizzards and temperatures as low as –25 °C (–13 °F), even until the middle of March temperatures were well below 0 °C (32 °F). Most of the PoWs were ill-prepared for the evacuation, having suffered years of poor rations and wearing clothing ill-suited to the appalling winter conditions.
    In most camps, the PoWs were broken up in groups of 250 to 300 men and because of the inadequate roads and the flow of battle, not all the prisoners followed the same route. The groups would march 20 to 40 kilometers a day - resting in factories, churches, barns and even in the open. Soon long columns of PoWs were wandering over the northern part of Germany with little or nothing in the way of food, clothing, shelter or medical care.
    Prisoners from different camps had different experiences: sometimes the Germans provided farm wagons for those unable to walk. There seldom were horses available, so teams of PoWs pulled the wagons through the snow. Sometimes the guards and prisoners became dependent on each other, other times the guards became increasingly hostile. Passing through some villages, the residents would throw bricks and stones, and in others, the residents would share their last food. Some groups of prisoners were joined by German civilians who were also fleeing from the Russians. Some who tried to escape or could not go on were shot by guards.
    With so little food they were reduced to scavenging to survive. Some were reduced to eating dogs and cats -- and even rats and grass -- anything they could lay their hands on. Already underweight from years of prison rations, some were at half their prewar body weight by the end. Because of the unsanitary conditions and a near starvation diet, hundreds of PoWs died along the way from exhaustion as well as pneumonia, diphtheria, pellagra, and other diseases. Typhus was spread by body lice. Sleeping outside on frozen ground resulted in frostbite that in many cases required the amputation of extremities. In addition to these conditions were the dangers from air attack by Allied forces mistaking the POWs for retreating columns of German troops. At a village called Gresse, 60 Allied POWs died in a "friendly-fire" situation when strafed by a flight of RAF Typhoons.
    As winter drew to a close, suffering from the cold abated and some of the German guards became less harsh in their treatment of PoWs. As the columns reached the western side of Germany they ran into the advancing British and American armies. For some, this brought liberation. Others were not so lucky. They were marched towards the Baltic Sea, where Nazis were said to be using PoWs as human shields and hostages. It was later estimated that a large number of PoWs had marched over five hundred miles by the time they were liberated, and some had walked nearly a thousand miles.
    Norman Jardine [1] explained how, once liberated, his group of POWs were given a revolver by a U.S. Army officer and told to shoot any guards who had treated them 'unfairly'. He stated that "We did!"
    On 4 May 1945 RAF Bomber Command implemented Operation Exodus, and the first prisoners of war were repatriated by air in aircraft. Bomber Command flew 2,900 sorties over the next 23 days, carrying 72,500 prisoners of war.

    Total number of British and American POW deaths

    The total number of American POWs in Germany was in the region of 93,000-94,000 and American sources stated that 1,121 died. The equivalent British and Commonwealth total was close to 180,000 and whilst no accurate records exist, historians claim that if a similar casualty rate is assumed then the number who died would be around 2,200, so a total figure would be approaching 3,500 American and British POWs who died in German custody.[3] Some of these would have been before the death marches, but the marches would have claimed a significant proportion. Other estimates vary greatly, with one magazine for former POWs putting the number of deaths from the Gross Tychow march alone at 1,500.[4] A senior YMCA official closely involved with the POW camps put the number of British and American POW deaths at 8,348 between September 1944 and May 1945.[5]

    Blame for the Marches

    SS general, Generalleutnant Gottlob Berger, who was put in charge of the POW camps in 1944 until the end of the war was arrested and put on trial in the Ministries Trial in 1947. In 1949 there was an attempt to assign blame for the marches against Berger and the indictment read:
    "that between September 1944 and May 1945, hundreds of thousands of American and Allied prisons of war were compelled to undertake forced marches in severe weather without adequate rest, shelter, food, clothing and medical supplies; and that such forced marches, conducted under the authority of the defendant Berger, chief of Prisoner-of-War Affairs, resulted in great privation and deaths to many thousands of prisoners."[6]
    Berger claimed that it was in fact the Germans' duty under the Geneva Convention to remove POWs from a potential combat zone, as long as it did not put their lives in even greater danger. He also claimed that the rapid advance of the Red Army had surprised the Germans, who had planned to transport the POWs by train. He claimed that he had protested about the decision, made by Hitler, according to him, but he was "without power or authority to countermand or avoid the order". The case failed due to these claims and the lack of eyewitness evidence - most ex-POWs were completely unaware of the trial taking place.[7]
    However in 1949 Berger was convicted for his role in the genocide of European Jews and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The sentence was reduced to 10 years in 1951 because of his refusal to kill the Prominente in Oflag IV-C at Colditz Castle, despite direct orders from Adolf Hitler. He had helped these prisoners escape by moving them to Bavaria and then onto Austria where he met up with them twice before they were returned to American forces. He claimed that he had saved the Prominente from the head of the Gestapo, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who had sent a group of extremists to try and kill them.
    After the war Berger claimed that Hitler had wanted more shootings of prisoners and more punishments, but that he had resisted this. In 1948 Berger gave details to an American judge in Nuremberg of Hitler's plans to hold 35,000 Allied prisoners hostage in a 'last redoubt' in the Bavarian mountains. If a peace deal was not forthcoming, Hitler had ordered that the hostages were to be executed. Berger claimed that on 22 April 1945 Hitler had signed orders to this effect and these were passed to him by Eva Braun but he decided to stall and not carry out the order. He also claimed that he had opposed a plan, proposed by the Luftwaffe and approved by Hitler to set up special POW camps for British and American airmen in the center of large German cities to act as human shields against Allied bombing raids. Berger realized that this would contravene the Geneva Convention and argued that there was not enough barbed wire - as a result this plan was not implemented.[8] Berger was released from jail in 1951 and died in 1975."

    The March (1945 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
     
  10. wtid45

    wtid45 Ace

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    Hey JC i just got a copy of The Last Escape having perused its pages your spot on also some intresting info on RSM Lord of Arnhem fame.
     
  11. Carl W Schwamberger

    Carl W Schwamberger Ace

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    I recall reading of German PoWs complaining about the US Armys combat rations, the canned 'C' rations,being inedible and how they suffered eating them.:rolleyes:
     
  12. kimfdim

    kimfdim Member

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    Well, I guess I'm just plain old backwards! I knew about this "Death March" before the Bataan "Death March". My husband (who isn't even a WWII buff told me about the Bataan March)!
    Thanx for the recognition of this particular march.

    Zwingli - regards for your father. He is an honorable man to survive this march.

    Lisa
     
  13. David Layne

    David Layne Member

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    Leslie my father was on this march too. I am currently reading "Wingless Journey" by L.R. Sidwell. Sidwell was on this march also and this book is his account of the march.

    It took me a long time to get a copy, I eventually found one on e bay.
     
  14. Zwingli

    Zwingli Member

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    Thanks for that David. Was your father RAF,RCAF in Luft III? Another really excellent book on the March from the RAF side is "Lie in the Dark and Listen by Ken Rees, who was also on the March.
    It really helped Dad with dates and timelines for our book. I also managed to obtain a copy of The Last Escape which I have found very interesting and a good reference source.

    Kind regards,
    Leslie
     
  15. David Layne

    David Layne Member

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    I have " Lie in the dark and will be reading it next. I also have "The Last Escape."

    My father was R.A.F.

    I would be interested in reading "our" book that you are referring too, let me know the details.
     
  16. Zwingli

    Zwingli Member

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    Hi again David.
    What squadron was your father with? Dad flew with 101. 156 and 582 Squadrons as a Lancaster Pilot and was shot down on his 44th mission. The book covers Dad's signing up, training, operational duties capture incarceration and finally repatriation.We are now nearing completion of the book which I hope will be done by the New Year at the latest. I will be seeing my Dad over Thanksgiving where we hope we will finalize the editing. Then the next step is to find a publisher. I have asked Sean Feast, author of Carried on the Wind, Heroic Endeavour and most recently Master Bombers, to have a read of the manuscript and provide any suggestions to which he has graciously accepted. He did say however, that most publishers will not look at publishing a work unless they can feel assured it will sell at least 2000 copies. So we will see.
    Thanks for your interest.
    Leslie
     
  17. David Layne

    David Layne Member

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    Hello again Leslie. My father flew a tour with 50 Squadron on Hampdens and was shot down on his 64th and last trip of his second tour with 97 Squadron.

    I would be interested in the book, so now you only have to sell 1999 copies!
     
  18. Alan Dearling

    Alan Dearling recruit

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    Hi guys

    I'm a new member, in my late 50s, born near Brighton in Sussex, England. My father was a warrant officer in the RAF, shot down on 2nd March in a Lancaster bomber over Germany and then a POW at Stalag Luft 6, and was on the long death march over the following winter. I'm picking up on a few bits of history around that series of events. He was in a pretty bad state after the war and spent a longish time in Sunninghill Park rehab centre near Ascot. He owed his life to a tough Australian farmer who knew how to hunt and kill small animals on the march.

    Also, v interested in the tales of the GIs in the UK in the run up to D-Day, especially the Black GIs in Dorset and Devon who were the first troops in places like Lyme Regis where I used to live. Now based up in the borders of Scotland.

    Alan
     
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  19. PzJgr

    PzJgr Drill Instructor Patron  

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    Howdy Alan and welcome to the forum. Glad to have you with us. You might want to post your request about the GIs in Dorset and Devon here Information Requests - World War II Forums. It will get more exposure there.
     
  20. STURMTRUPPEN

    STURMTRUPPEN Member

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    i read about the death march across germanny a few years ago
    and thanks for posting details about it
     

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