The March (1945)

The March (1945)

"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. [Chris Christiansen - Seven Years amongst Prisoners of War, trans. Egede Winther (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994)]


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. [ [,,9780141003887,00.html The Last Escape - John Nichol, Tony Rennell - 2002 Penguin UK] ] 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 [] 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. [Annual report of the DVA Advisory Committee on Former Prisoners of War, in cooperation with the Department of Defense, January 1999] 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. [John Frisbee and George Guderley - Lest We Forget - Air Force Magazine September 1997] 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. [Chris Christiansen - Seven Years amongst Prisoners of War, trans. Egede Winther (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1994).]

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." [Trials of War criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No 10, Vol. XIII (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1952]

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. [ [,,9780141003887,00.html The Last Escape - John Nichol, Tony Rennell - 2002 Penguin UK] ]

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. [Berger statement to Allied intelligence officers, Nuremberg, 19 October 1945] Berger was released from jail in 1951 and died in 1975.

Timeline of POW evacuations

*April 1944 - Fifty POWs were executed after escaping from Stalag Luft III at Sagan.
*13 July 1944 - evacuation of Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug in Lithuania begins, to Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow involving a force march and 60hr journey by ship to Swinemunde, or by force march and cattle train to Stalag XX-A at Thorn in Poland.
*17 December 1944 - The SS shot seventy-one captured American POWs in the Malmedy massacre.
*24 December 1944 - POW work camps near Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) are evacuated.
*27 December 1944 to April 1945 - POWs at Stalag VIII-B (formerly Stalag VIII-D) at Teschen began their forced march through Czechoslovakia, towards Dresden, then towards Stalag XIII-D at Nuremberg and finally on to Stalag VII-A at Moosburg in Bavaria.
*12 January 1945 - Red Army launched offensive in Poland and East Prussia.
*19 January 1945 - evacuation from Stalag Luft 7 at Bankau, near Kreuzberg, Poland, begins in blizzard conditions - 1,500 prisoners were force marched then loaded onto cattle trucks and taken to Stalag III-A at Luckenwalde, south of Berlin.
*22 January 1945 - Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf, Silesia was evacuated.
*23 January 1945 - evacuation began at Stalag XX-B at Marienburg, Danzig.
*27 January 1945 - Red Army liberates Auschwitz.
*27 January 1945 to February 1945 - evacuation began at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, to either Stalag III-A at Luckenwalde, 30 km south of Berlin, or to Marlag und Milag Nord, near Bremen, or to Stalag XIII-D, near Nuremberg, then onto Stalag VII-A near Moosburg, Bavaria.
*6 February 1945 to March 1945 - evacuation from Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow, Pomerania began an eighty-six day forced march to Stalag XI-B and Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel. Many prisoners were then marched from here at the end of the war towards Lubeck.
*10 February 1945 - Stalag VIII-A at Gorlitz was evacuated.
*14 February 1945 - British and American bombers attacked Dresden.
*19 March 1945 - Hitler issued the Nero Decree.
*3 April 1945 - Stalag XIII-D at Nuremberg was evacuated.
*6 April 1945 - Stalag XI-B and Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel were evacuated.
*16 April 1945 - Oflag IV-C, (Colditz Castle), was liberated.
*16 April 1945 - POWs left behind at Fallingbostel were liberated by the British Second Army.
*17 April 1945 - Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated.
*19 April 1945 - a POW column was attacked by allied aircraft at Gresse resulting in 60 fatalities.
*22 April 1945 - Stalag III-A at Luckenwalde was liberated by Soviet forces.
*27 April 1945 - US and Soviet forces linked up at the River Elbe.
*29 April 1945 - Stalag VII-A at Moosburg was liberated by Patton's Third United States Army.
*30 April 1945 - Berlin falls to the Red Army and Hitler commits suicide.
*4 May 1945 - German forces surrendered on Luneburg Heath.
*8 May 1945 - the last POWs evacuated from Stalag XI-B at Fallingbostel are liberated on VE day.
*12 May 1945 - the Red Army releases British and American POWs at Stalag III-A, Luckenwalde.

See also

*Prisoner of war
*Prisoner-of-war camp
*List of German WWII POW camps
*Death marches (Holocaust)



*"For You The War Is Over" by Sam Kydd - Futura, London, 1974.
*"The Last Escape" by Nichol and Rennell - Viking, New York, 2003.

External links

* [ Lamsdorf Death March 1945] An account by RAF Warrant Officer Joseph Fusniak, BEM (still alive 2008)
* [ Stalag VIII-B Discussion Board]

* [ Lamsdorf Reunited]
* [ Norman Jardine's Diary of a Forced March of POWs, January-May 1945]
* []
* [ Evacuation of Fallinbostel POW camp - April 1945]

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