PART 4: THE VICTOR POPPA STORY: PRISONER OF WARalan skeochDEC 30. 2019VICTOR POPPA
So here we are Victor. May I speak to you Victor even though you have died longlong ago.I wish, Victor, that I had transcribed your edited diary back in the 1980’s when you were alive and full ofpiss and vinegar. You trusted me and believed I was a much bigger fish in the ocean life than Iactually was in those days. My first priority was my students. I know that sounds cruel, Victor, butit was a truth. Each day I tried to inject young minds with an ability to be introspective. To seethemselves as threads in the garment of life. That task was never easy. Preparing lessons soundslike such a dull thing to do. Boring some might say. I laboured to avoid the tedium of repetition andsometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I failed Victor. Your story, however, was always on my mindas Gordon Lightfoot said in one his wonderful songs. And when I told your story to a class they werealways riveted…always able to put themselves in the lonely plexiglass bubble of HX 313 as it hurtledits to earth. I regret that your constant sexual adventures were never shared. That would have gotme into trouble for sure. Some people might consider those sexual adventures exploitive. i.e. treatingwomen as only sexual objects. I know that was not the case with you Victor. You loved them all.Now we have reached the final section of your story. I would like to pick it up at the point yourdamaged body hit the ground near your target of Bourg Leopold, Belgium. You have written somenotes for me to put the story together but those notes are not nearly as rich as your diary notations.So forgive me. I am going to try and put my feet in your shoes. To start me off I have to takeanother look at you…maybe two looks. First, the Amused grin of you Victor when you took meup in that decrepit Cessna 170 over the Californian village of Lake Elsinore in 1984. And secondthe real devilish smile on your face the year you joined the RCAF at 22 years of age.Victor, it seems to me that you knew that being tail gunner was going to be a life altering experience,You joined he RCAF as a baby faced kid in the early years of World War Two. By 1945 you had grownup and were aware of your days living on this earth were limited. Yet you survived. And for the r bestof your life you would live and relive those Bomber Command war yearsSo let’s pick up the story again on that tragic night of May 27, 1943 when the Blonde Bomber, HX 313was on fire and plummeting to earth afire and carrying a full bomb load.Victor you were the only living person still on board. Your good friend Hank Freeman was presentbut dead. Killed by bullets that punctured the belly of HX 313 and just stopped short of Victor’s rear
gunner bubble..EVENTS IN VICTOR’S OWN WORDS
“Our bomber did not explode. There were fires in from front to rear. The inside of much of the plane was cherry red.My first thoughts were: ‘You have been waiting for this and now it has finally happened.’ I called on the Intercombut received no answer, only static. HX 313, however, was still flying in a straight line.”“I pulled off my flying helmet, opened my turret doors, reached for my parachute and snapped it to my chest. I stayed in myposition because I saw no parachute go by the tail. Then, a few seconds later, I saw one. It was open and on its sideparallel to the ground just missing the port rudder and fin. Then I decided to go. I swung my turrets 90 degrees in thefuselage and tried to go out but couldn’t because of the fire and wind. I tried twice to no avail. By this time the groundwas appearing quite close. I could tell from the fires that to bail out from the aft fuselage exit would have entailed too muchtime and by then it would be too late anyway. So I sat there waiting for my end. The aircraft then went into a flat spin.My turret twisted free and I was flung out by the brute force. My leg, however, was stuck momentarily under my leg guard.I could feel my knee pull right out of its socket. Then my leg came free. I was falling flat on my back. I looked on mychest for my parachute and it was not there. The parachute had been pulled away for my chest by the wind force and wasnowhere feet from my face and above. Pulled on theharness and brought the parachute down close enough so I could grab the D ring and pulled. It opened with sharp snap. A painknifed through my groin, I put my arms above my head, grabbed the harness and pulled thereby relieving the pain. A fewseconds later I saw the ground coming up real fast. I felt as though I was an arrow. I hit the ground hard and collapsedwith my parachute falling on top of me. I am sure the chute had opened at less that 1,000 feet and our aircraft had beenat 11,900when we were first hit by the flak and then shot up by the JU 88.”“I managed to get onto my feet but I could not feel anything from the waist down…felt like metal bands were clamped aroundmy ankles and knees. I was standing balanced as though on stilts. Just t hen I could hear motors screaming…an aircraftin its death sieve. I Dropped flat to the ground. It is amazing how close you think you are to the ground, as if you are beingpulled down tight, pressed into the grass. This aircraft hit a few fields away and exploded.”“All of this happened at approximately 2 a.m. on the 28th of May, 1944. After the explosion I found I couldn’t walk but moved witha painful shuffle. I moved away from the area slowly. At wire fences I would put my body through and then with my hands pull my legs through.I moved along in this manner until the dawn started to glow. Then I made my way into the centre of a wheat field where I lay downand fell into a deep sleep. I awoke at noon hour with the sun shining down at me. I made my way out of the field and crawled undera tree. I took off my electric suit and found I had suffered some spinal chord damage and had torn open my left leg and buttocks.The leg was swollen twice its normal size and black and blue. I also had torn muscles and ligaments. I crawled to a farm housewhere the farmer was kind but reluctant to hide me. He gave me water and milk to drink. We were advised in England neverto impose upon these people. I they showed willingness, fine. If not, leave. If we were caught with them they would sufferGrievously.”
“My legs were starting to stiffen up and the pain was increasing. I made my way to another field where I lay down and rolled and rolledin agony. I was this way well into the afternoon. Finally I felt that I must get some assistance. On my knees I made my wayback to the farm house and indicated I would like police assistance. While waiting, a Belgian doctor gsveme an injection of some sort but it had no effect. I gave the farm woman all of my escape money and shortly two LuftwaffeNCO’s came in an automobile. I was placed in the back seat with one NCO and because I could not bend my legs I hadto lay across his body.”“I was driven to our target the previous night. There was one room left standing where I was deposited on a bed. Despite allof the killing we had done I was not mistreated. I was given a bowl of greasy stew which i could not down. Later, I was visitedby a German medical officer All he did was rant and rave at me in German. Although I Felt he was going to strike me, he did not.Three days later I was taken outside and placed in the back of a truck with four caskets. A German NCO pointed to one andsaid “Komerad Irwin. This was our navigator Bob Irwin. I gave a negative response. He then pointed to the casket on my rightand said “Kamerad Wakely”. This was the coffin of Wilf Wakely. Again I gave a negative response . I was not questioned about thethird caskrt. This one must have been George. The fourth was empty as I had moved it with my foot. At that time I did not know Georgewas dead. It wasn’t until I returned to England after the war was over that I got word from RCAF records that George had beenkilled. This left me stunned as Hank (George) and I were real close friends.”
What happened to Hank Freeman? “So Hank could have been the first one out as Bill seems to remember someone going out ahead of him. Bill may be correctbut I don’t think so. I had no trouble hearing the clatter of bullets coming through from below and stopping just short of my position. I think Hanks was hangingthere. Dead. Remember the comment that the crew passed by the upper turret and saw feet hanging down and my smelling burnt flesh when I was put inthe German truck with the coffins later. But I could be wrong. If Hank bailed out he would have been the first out followed by Bill, Muir, Wilf, Bob, Eric, Ken andfinally myself. Personally I think he was killed by the tremendous burst of bullets crashing through HX 313 from front to back in those few seconds. Hankwasn’t the type to bail out first. He would have waited to be sure. I only tried to bale out after I saw a chute go by horizontally which was Ken. I wassure I would go down with HX 313…certain death. Then fate took hold, the bubble shifted and I fell out just in time.”
Note: Victor Poppa’s account closed the file on the last flight of HX 313. He was the last person to get out of the aircraft. All hadbeen able to get out one way or another, except for George Freeman. Two who got out were killed when they hit the ground.The rest survived. George was likely killed when the JU 88 strafed the plane. One of the crew remembers George’s legs hanging downas he worked his way past the upper turret to reach the escape hatch. The nagging thought that George remained alive worried Victor becausegunners were often trapped in their turrets like Victor had been. HX 313 exploded on impact near an abandoned railway station. Eric Mallettand Ken Sweatman were escorted past a pile of melted metal that had once been The Blonde Bomber. They could not stop to lookclosely for their escorts were members of the Belgian Underground and it was imperative that they hide Ken and Eric asquickly as possible. Victor Poppa, George Elliott and Morris Muir became POW’s.
STALAG LUFT VII
Note: OnMay 19,1984, almost 200 Canadian veterans and their wives celebrated the 50 year anniversary of 424 Squadron…the Tiger Squadron…the ‘City of Hamilton Squadron.Among those present were Victor Poppa and his wife Louise. In the special Memorial book, Victor provided an overview of his life as a POW in Stalag Lutt VII.Victor Poppa: ” After hospitalization and interrogation i Iwas sent to Stalag Luft VII at Bankau which is ten miles from the Polish border in a straight line between Breslau and Krakau.At first we were given one Red Cross parcel a week plus one meal a day. The tins in the Red Cross parcels were punctured to keep us from hoarding the food for escape use.By September 1944 the parcels only came once every two weeks and on Christmas day, December 25 1944, we received our last Red Cross parcel. In the new year the weatherbecame colder. Since our food had been reduced we felt the cold more. ”upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/02/Red_Cross_Parcel.jpg/500px-Red_Cross_Parcel.jpg 2x” data-file-width=”2848″ data-file-height=”2136″>Note: Other surviving POW’s described Stalag Luft VII as terrible…especially for the Russians in adjoining POW camp who were systematically starved to death. One Canadian POWsaid they sometimes tried to throw potato peels over the barbed wire to the Russians who fought to get whatever they could. Russian corpses often had flesh wounds related tocannibalism. Efforts to help the Russians was nearly impossible. No point, explained one guard, just a waste of food for the Russians would soon be dead.Note: Victor Poppa’s description is short. Conversations with Victor were much more detailed but I have no detailed written account except from memory. Victor did describe thehorrors faced by the Russians. He also described a Russian women’s POW camp which was also grim. Grim? Wrong word. Horrible is better.In 1941 Hitler gave the infamous Commisar Order that permitted the wholesale murder of Russian POW’s and civilians. He justified it by saying that Stalin would dothe same to German POW’s. The estimated numbers of deaths by starvation or execution is mind boggling.(“It is estimated that at least 3.3 million Soviet POWs died in Nazi custody, out of 5.7 million. This figure represents a total of 57% of all Soviet POWs and may be contrasted with 8,300 out of 231,000 British and U.S. prisoners, or 3.6%. About 5% of the Soviet prisoners who died were Jews. The most deaths took place between June 1941 and January 1942, when the Germans killed an estimated 2.8 million Soviet POWs primarily through deliberate starvation, exposure, and summary execution. A million at most had been released, most of whom were so-called ‘volunteers’ (Hilfswillige) for (often compulsory) auxiliary service in the Wehrmacht, 500,000 had fled or were liberated, the remaining 3.3 million had perished as POWs.”)An improvised camp for Soviet Prisoners of war. Thousands. Many would starve to death. Allied prisonersslike Victor Poppa were treated better and many survived.THE LONG MARCH“Because of the Russians advance we were ordered to march west and after 15days marching, with very little for, we reached Cloberg on February 5th, 1945. We were putinto boxcars and transformed to Luft 3A which is about 4 miles from Potsdam. Our rations were cut again and we were getting concerned about our health as we wereweaker and noticeably thinner.One morning when we awoke to the sound of gunfire in the distance there were suddenly no guards in the camp. About noon the Russiansappeared. We were told they had hooked up with the Americans about 50 miles to the south of us. Carl Seeley and I decided to cut out on our own.”Note: See two diary descriptions of the Long March as post scripts. Why was it necessary to march POW’s deep into the collapsing circle of German territory?Prisoners had negotiating value I suppose. One source reported that Adolph Hitler ordered all POW’s to be shot in the event of a German surrender. This neverhappened. The collapse of German forces was fast and it is doubtful that such a wide scale massacre would have happened.“On the second day out we hooked up with nine French girls. We did the food scrounging for all of us while the girls did the cooking. After 14 days we reachedTorgow and theAmericans. They agreed to pass us on to the Canadians but could do nothing for the French girls as they were civilians. That night we had a farewell party and after exchanging addresses weboarded a C47 for Brussels.. The next day we were flown to England and boarded a train for Bournemouth and eventually repatriated home to Canada. Out of our crew of eight, five of usmanaged to come home.”“I found my map used by Seeley, myself and the French girls to reach the American sector. Dated Aril 10, 1945. We walked from LUckenwalde POW camp to Juterborg, then south toHerzberg then SW to Torgau where the Russian and American forces met. I am not sure how long it took…between 9 and 14days.”Note: This short account was written in 1984. Too bad it is so short. I remember Victor telling me his adventures when he and Seeley walked through the ruins of Germanyto the American lines. At one point while scrounging for food they entered a farmer’s house and faced a German officer in a bedroom. The officer was scared as was Victor.Nothing happened even though the German had a Luger beneath the covers. Victor backed out of the room. Seeley and Poppa acted as protectors of the nine girls on their14 day escape. He told me that chaos was too soft a word for the condition of Germany in those immediate post war weeks. I remember asking Victor is they hid at night. Usuallyin empty barns or houses he answered.“What did you do in daylight? Lots of people with guns…Russians, Germans.”“That was a problem. At first we ducked into ditches or bushes but that was risky. Nervous trigger fingers all around. So we decided it was best to stay exposed on the roads. We becamepart of the stream of people moving who knows where. Actually having the nine French girls was protection for Seeley and me.”Note: Other stories by liberated POW’s abound. In the daytime they wandered through German towns taking whatever was portable. One POW even broke into a paymaster’s office andfound piles of various wartime currencies. “I took some…wish I had taken more for the money turned out to be cashable.” Another group broke into a wine storage building filled withfine wines from France. One of the POW’s took a case of champagne back to the POW camp for a party. Next day he thought he should get more but by then the building hadbeen set ablaze. “Burned to the ground.” Most POW’s felt safer in the prison camp rather than in German towns and cities at night. So they raided in daylight and returned to campat night. Another Canadian ex POW carefully snipped out a huge portrait of Hitler as a souvenir. “Too big for the C47…you cannot take it aboard.” What most POW’s wanted tofind were German Lugers as there were heaps of recently cast off German uniforms here and there as Germans attempted to suddenly become civilians. “I kicked one pile of Germanuniforms and a Luger slid out from the pile. Before I could reach down, other hands grabbed it.” Symbols of the Third Reich were gathered not just by POW’s but by Allied soldiers andofficers as well. They appear now and then in auctions. Harry T—. a good friend of mine had a nice oil painting hanging in his Mississauga home that he cut from a German frame androlled up as ‘the spoils of war’. Another friend inherited from his paratrooper father a whole basket full of badges including an Iron Cross along with a large Nazi flag. “What am I goingto do with this?”, he wondered.Note: What happened to the guards? Seems that some of them ditched their uniforms and mixed in with the refugee streams on the roads. One group of guards had a novel reaction tothe situation. They threw their weapons over the barbed wire fence and became prisoners of the POW’s and were photographed as such. I do not know if that was much protectionagainst the arrival of Russian troops so suspect those guards were in an American sector. Dead and near dead Russian POW’s must have enraged Russian forces.A long time ago, back in 1961, I read ‘Documents of the Expulsion’ which detailed the fate of tens of thousands of Germans attempting to escape Russian occupationof Poland and the Baltic States. There is no horror that I have read since to match what happened to many of these people. German POW’s captured by the Russians were shippedby the trainload to Siberian prisons where many died. Eventually, years later, some were able to trickle back to Germany. Some may have been Victor Poppa’s prison guards.When Victor Poppa reached the American sector he was housedbriefly on a recently liberated German air base. “One day a German Messerschmitt flew in escorted by American fighter planes. It landed and a German officer surrendered having escapedthe eastern sector. His girlfriend was with him in the plane.” Both were taken away. “I do not know what happened to the Messerschmitt. But I do remember looking at a great number of aircraft on the base.Most of them no longer airworthy.” Did Victor Poppa bring any trophies home? I don’t know, but he sure brought back lots of memories. I bet he wanted that Messerscmidt for he had a deepfascination with aircraft. I can imagine Victor suggesting…. “I guess it would be out of the question for me to fly that Messerscmitt back to England. That would savea seat in the C47 for someone else?” (never uttered but true to Victor’s nature.)CONCLUSION:Those of you who have read Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the Victor Poppa story must feel as I did thata very human, very graphic, very exciting window had been opened. Perhaps the best wayto close that window is to let Victor do the closing. Below is the last letter Victor Poppa sentto me on Dec. 7, 1988.Victor Poppa33535 Valencia St. R1Lake ElsinoreCalifornia, 92330Dear Alan, Marjorie, Kevin and Andrew,I was just reviewing your letter of April 8, 1988 which seems a very long time ago. I regret notanswering sooner. Thanks for your book ‘Focus on Society’ which I have read and enjoyed.I have a collectors’ item for you…a 12 ounce can of Budweiser Beer with no pull tab for easyopening, the can must have slipped through inspection. As you know I quit drinking alcoholyears ago which must surprise anyone reading my diary of those war years.I have not been feeling all that well this year with has hampered my letter writing. PresentlyI am getting pain up my left leg from ankle to hip. It pulsates in an arthritic way….very painful.Louise is having her share of trouble as well. To add to it she fell off our airplane’s horizontal stabilizeras I was trying as I was trying to get the main wheels out of some soft earth. I pushed downon the tail to get the nose wheel up and induced Louise to sit on the stabilizer. This keptthe nose wheel up. Louise’s weight was a modest advantage. However when Louise changedposition the tail unit shot up and Louise fell off. She fell about 4.5 feet landing on her left foot thenbanged the back of her head. Louise was groaning and crying that she was about to die. Abone was broken in her foot so Louise is now sporting a cast from toe to just below the knee.She will be limping around the house for six more weeks.Then a few weeks ago when I was on a nocturnal visit to the refrigerator I tripped and crackeda rib when I hit the table top with my side. A few weeks earlier I tripped over the dog on asimilar trip to the refrigerator. That time I cracked my right knee cap I think. There was aloud ‘crack’ indicating something broke. It doesn’t hurt though.We had Thelma Sweatman here for two weeks in early February. I gave her the picture ofHX 33. She was happy to get it. Thelma asked me to send you a card from Ken’s funeral.He died on August 30, my birthday. Ken has let me with the fondest memories. He was awonderful person…cool in combat…good and sincere…never changing. Always a good friend.The world has lost a fine person.Alan, I should have put in more detail describing some of our missions in my diary. I supposeI can add comments now.Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New year.Love from usVictor and Louise PoppaNote: I suppose This must seem to be a strange letter . Accidents, ailments…normal give and takeof daily life including Victor’s ‘nocturnal raid on the refrigerator’ and ‘tripping over the dog’. Whyuse this letter as a conclusion to his escapades in Bomber Command? Victor had not changedmuch. In 1988 he was still flying…and his description of getting his plane out of the mud has a sortof amusing yet concerned ring to it. His wife Louise was the young girl he met in Quebec Cityjust before he went overseas in World War Two. She must have known about his escapadeswith Hank Freeman and been amused rater than offended.Perhaps the main reason I have included this letter however is his mention of Ken Sweatman, thebomb aimer one HX313. The crew bonded and kept in touch. They became family.Then there is the dog. Probably the same dog that nearly killed me when Victor described a mouserunning back and forth in the dog’s mouth between lips and teeth. “The dog looked at me, Alan,with a questioning dog grin as if saying ‘what do I do now?’ That caused me to laugh too hard…injesta piece of stake that was too big for my esophagus…no air..gagging…leapt up on the restauranttable. Whereupon Victor, lightning speed…whirled me around and locked his hands below my ribcage…pulled firmly. And saved my life.I hope that this transcription of his diary can be seen as payback.alan skeochdec. 2019Ken Sweatman, Bomb Aimer on HX 313.
Only image known of HX 313, The Blonde Bomber.
Victor Poppa’s hand written map documenting his escape from POW camp at Luckenwalde. Victor and his friend Terry Seeleyjoined 9 French nurses in a trek across Germany to the American sector.
Victor sent this drawing to me in 1984, saying ‘this is what the Long March was really like’
Copy from a page in Victor Poppa’ diary. More below.
TWO DESCRIPTIONSTHE LONG MARCH TO LUCKENWALDE, JANUARY, 27, 1945
(NOT BY VICTOR POPPA )
17.1.45 Orders received to evacuate the camp because of the Russian advance towards the West. Stood by all day with, kit packed.All Red Cross parcels withdrawn from stores. Columns of retreating Germans pass the camp. Horse drawn wagons main form of transport. Bitterly cold – sub-zero temperatures. Russian P.O.W.’s are moved into our new compound. Small issue of cigarettes to each man. 18.1.45 Rations issued – 1/7th tin of meat, 2/3rd loaf of bread, 1/8 lb margarine. 1/4 lb honey, 2 cheeses. This to last two and a half days if we march – 4 days if transport is by train. All contents of food parcels shared amongst our combine of 18. My share – tin of cocoa, packet tea, tin sausages and some margarine.
Heavy air raid in vicinity of camp. Latest rumour – Germans leaving us here after all. Confusion in the minds of many. We may move this evening. Took to my bed at 22.00 hours.
19.1.45 03.30 hours ordered to parade at 05.00 hours. Bitterly cold – nothing but ice and snow. Moved off at 07.00 hours – some 1500 POWs, guards, guard dogs and 2 field kitchens.
Passed through Kreutzburg mid morning – unaware there were some three and a half thousand Red Cross parcels in the vicinity. Column moving very slowly – 5 minutes rest every 2 hours.
Arrived Kronstaat 12.30 hours. Items of kit left by the roadside at every stop., Mainly books, musical instruments and other bulky items. Some already finding this march difficult. Those in poor shape find a place in the sick wagon at the rear of the column.
16.00 hours – reached Winterfeld. Shelter found in barns and farm outbuildings. Spent night in hay loft. Main meal – bread and honey.
20.1.45 Expected to move at 08.00 hours but guards had us out by 04.00 hours. Moved off 06.30 hours. Bitterly cold – fingers and ears quickly numbed. 10.30 hours – arrived Karlsruhr. Refugees choking roads in all directions. Some guards disappear. Whole party accommodated in brickworks. Filthy dirty. Opportunity given to light fires and brew coffee and tea. Issue from field kitchens. Distance so far today – 12Km. At 21.30 we moved off again. Orders to cross the River Oder by 08.00 hours next day as the bridge was due to be blown. Temperature about freezing point. 21.1.45 Many observed suffering from hunger and fatigue. Reached Oder at 05.15 and crossed in single file. Rumours of rail transport soon. 07.00 hours reached Rosenfeld. No accommodation available – 7 Km. to proper barracks and then transport. 10.00 hours – Walchaven – almost exhausted. We had covered 41 Km. in some 24 hours. Shelter in Stables and cow sheds. Stench forgotten as we welcomed the warmth. Issued with 40 dog biscuits and cup of coffee (acorn). My feet are sore. 48 hours rest? Abandoned most of my kit including 1 of 2 blankets. 22.1.45 Rumour that the Russians have crossed the Oder and we must march 03.00 hours. Sick – about 40 – being left in hospital at Walchaven. Reluctant to move but a few warning shots fired around the stable area prompted a mass movement outside. Civilians in neighbourhood preparing to move as well. Women in tears. Passed through Schonfeld. Next shelter a barn at 11.00 hours. Cases of frostbite. Distance marched 21 km. 23.1.45 Food issue – half packet Knackercrot wafer, 1/8 lb margarine.
Marched from 08.45 to 11.30 hours. Germans prepared to exchange bread and cigarettes for our soup ration. Next stop Hansen (Barns) – half cup of soup. Distance today 19 km.
24.1.45 A complete day for rest. Rations – 1/7th loaf, 1/10 lb marge and 2 cups of soup. 25.1.45 Marched off 08.00 hours. 13.30 hours – Wintersdorf. Barnyard accommodation. Soup issue. Distance 21 Km. 26.1.45 Half cup of soup. More rumours of transport provision. Sick queue extremely long. 27.1.45 Ration – 2/5th loaf, 1/10 lb marge, Marched off at 11.00 hours. Still bitterly cold. Boots frozen solid. 17.00 hours Perfindorf. Distance 21 Km. Half cup of soup. 28.1.45 04.00 hours – prepare to move off by 05.30. Reached Standorf at 12.15 hours. Half cup soup and a couple of potatoes. Unbearably cold even in the loft, Germans say we stay for 2 or 3 days and then continue by train. 29.1.45 to 30.1.45 Food issue – 7 biscuits, 1/2 lb margarine 1/16th can meat, half cup soup. We match tonight as transport is waiting. On road at 18.30 hours. Temperature – freezing. Impossible to keep water in a bottle. 20.00 hours – issued 2 packets biscuits. Weather worsening. Marching in a blizzard. Men at breaking point. Fatal to drop out now and be left to die in this. Army vehicles snow bound. Forced to help move them. A dead German by the roadside. 05.15 we reached Javer. Still marching. 07.30 – Peterneiz. Guards in bad mood. Only barns in which to sleep. Distance during worst conditions so far – 25 Km. Change in diet – half cup porridge. 31.1.45 Ration issue – 1/5th loaf. 1 packet biscuits 1/10 lb margarine. Two and a half cups of soup, 2/3rd cup dry oats and 2 spoonsful of coffee grounds. Report to the M.0. Septic blister on foot. Moved into the barn used as a sick bay. All sick being moved next day. Polish people with whom we came in contact showed much compassion. 2 cups of porridge and onions – a real banquet! 1.2.45 Main column moved off at 08.00. Transport for the sick at 09.00 hours – 1 steam engine pulling 2 lorries and a trailer. So many aboard, it proved very uncomfortable. An added inconvenience – the Kommandant’s dog. 14 Km. to Prossnitz where we arrived at 13.00 hours. Main group already there and usual number of small fires burning – a cheering sight. DEFINITELY NOT MOVING until transport is provided. Rations: 2/5th loaf bread, 1/7th lb margarine, half cup porridge and 2 raw potatoes. 2.2.45 Little improvement in condition of my foot – confined to makeshift bed. Weather improved considerably. A quick thaw – mud and slush replaces ice and snow. 2 issues of soup from field kitchen. Watches and rings bartered for bread, onions and potatoes. 3.2.45 No signs of moving. Small issue of bread and margarine also soup. 4.2.45 Information to the effect we move tomorrow as transport awaits us at Goldberg. Rations – 1/3 loaf, 1/6 lb marge, 1 spoonful sugar, 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup barley, 1/3 tin meat, 1/2 cup porridge oats. How long will this have to last? 5.2.45 06.45. Column marched off in a slight drizzle. My foot is better but marching is a strain. How different the countryside looks now the snow has gone. 8 Km to the station – arrived 10.00 hours. What a relief to see the TRAIN. No first class – just cattle trucks. 54 men in each truck so we were very restricted. Squat or stand – cramped in one position. Doors closed,and bolted. How many days of this hell? Train moved off at noon. passed through Liegnitz. Tempers frayed – dejected and miserable. Conditions in truck becomes unbearable as men urinate, vomit and excrete in odd corners. Feeding ourselves on raw oats, porridge and flour.
As night fell we were shunted into a siding at Sagan (Stalag Luft III). No movement for hours.
6.2.45 Moved from siding back to main line. Start, stop, start, stop. Carriage doors opened at intervals and we were allowed to stretch our legs. Buckets of water provided. Food and tempers getting short. 7.2.45 My last slice of bread has gone. Train never seems to travel for more than an hour before grinding to a halt. Half cup coffee per man. Protests about shortage of food to Germans, 30 trains ahead of us waiting to pass through a large town ahead. Many men being taken to hospital truck. Medical Officer and Staff unable to cope. Now eating flour and oats – a sickening concoction. 8.2.45 In a siding at Luckenwalde. The end of the line for us – confirmed by Camp Leader. A glorious morning – Spring is here. Rumours – 20,000 prisoners already in the camp. We are not expected. No food parcels. 11.30 Marched the 2 Km. to Stalag IIIA and searched as we passed through the gates. 400 of us to be housed in Barrack 9 North. No bunks – straw bales on the floor. Find a space and stake your claim. Food soon available – barley soup and potatoes and small ration of bread. All nationalities here in separate compounds. – Americans, Poles, French, Yugoslavs, Russians.
So begins life in my third camp but the end must be near.
Notes: marge=margarine: lb = pound weight = 454g
ONE SOLDIERS TALE – BANKAU STALAG LUFT 7 DIARY
GEORGE ‘HANK” FREEMAN AND GIRLFRIENDGEORGE FREEMAN WHEN HE ENLISTEDTHIS WAS ONCE THE AIRFIELD AS SKIPTON ON SWALE, YORKSHIRE, WHERE HX 313 AND OTHER AIRCRAFT AND CREWSOF RCAF SQUADRON 427 WAS BASED IN 1944.
COMEMORATIVE PLAQUE IN THE VILLAGE SQUARE, SKIPTON ON SWALE, YORKSHIRE. DEDICATED 1984
WHEN MARJORIE AND I VISITED SKIPTON ON SWALE IN 1988 (?) WE FOUND SOME SURVIVING BUILDINGS BUT WE WEREQUITE SHOCKED TO SEE THIS HUGE FIRE. RUBBISH WAS BEING INCINERATED BUT IT SURE LOOKED LIKETHE CRASH OF A HALIFAX BOMBER RETURNING FROM AN OPERATION .