The Forced Evacuation of
Stalag Luft III, January 1945
Max A. Stiefel
It was Saturday night, January 27, 1945 when the "Big Flap" started. Dean "lzzy" Frances, John "Shorty" Follette, Del Phelps and I were sitting in Combine 7, Barracks 39, Center Compound, Stalag Luft IH, Sagan, Germany playing bridge. The game was just going good when we received word to be prepared to leave on foot within two hours. We immediately started packing all we could carry, in the way of food and clothing, in blanket rolls. We bashed (greedily ate) all the powdered milk, sugar, ersatz (substitute) jam, chocolate, etc., which we figured we couldn't carry with us. These were rations which we had been hoarding for months in case of emergency.
I packed 6 cartons of cigarettes and 6 packages of tobacco, my extra blanket, an O.D. (olive drab) shirt and trousers, 2 suits of heavy underwear, 3 or 4 suits of summer underwear, 2 cans of sugar, I can of ersatz jam, my Log Book, 4 pairs of socks, I each knife, fork, spoon and cup, 4 or 5 handkerchiefs, soap and toilet articles, wash rag, a couple of towels, vitamin tablets and I or 2 other things. All this made quite a heavy pack but I decided to try it.
We waited then, still bashing and trying to make sense of the many rumors flying around the barracks, until about 0400 hours the following morning when we received orders to move out. The temperature outside was about 15 *F. I don't know what the wind-chill factor was, but it must have been close to zero. Some of the wise guys had made sleds (there was a lot of snow on the ground), and I wished that I had done the same.
We formed in front of the barracks (39) and Lt. Col. Jerry Dix, our barracks commander, told us we were to march out of camp heading West to keep us from being taken by Russian troops who were rapidly approaching. He further told us that the postems (guards) had orders from their Hauptman (Captain/commander) to shoot any stragglers. Then we started moving out and past the Red Cross building where we could pick up what Red Cross parcels we could carry. Del Phelps and I were going to eat together so we decided that one parcel for the two of us was about all we could carry and would have to be enough. We received the parcel and threw away the margarine, milk
and salmon (with deep regret) in order to lighten the load. Then our column moved out to the road as far as the North Compound and just stood there until about 0730 waiting for the Goons (Germans) to get ready to leave.
About 0745 we reached the main road and began our journey on the morning of January 28, 1945. It was pretty damned cold and damp. We marched about thirty minutes and then rested about five minutes. My pack was heavy to start with and got heavier with every step. So about the second rest stop I decided to lighten the load. I threw away my extra blanket, two cartons of cigarettes, the ersatz jani, a can of sugar, one suit of heavy underwear, and the salt shaker (after pouring about half of the salt in a paper envelope). I really hated having to throw away all that prime trading material but did so in the name of survival. This helped a lot and the most inconvenient problem was having to carry the food sack, which was awkward and chaffing, alternately with Ed Saltwedel (Salty) and Larry Platt.
The first lap of the march was 17 kilometers from the camp in Sagan to the village of Halbau. We arrived there about 1400 hours (2 PM) and were kept standing in the main street for over two hours while our German authorities searched for a place to house us. We relieved the monotony by trading with the natives for knives, sleds, hot water, potatoes, etc.. The villagers were exceedingly anxious to trade for our cigarettes, instant coffee, and chocolate.
There were about 2000 Kriegies (prisoners of war) in our segment of the column and the Goons finally put us in a German Lutheran church. We were so crowded that when everyone was either lying or sitting down there wasn't any floor space on which to walk. Facilities for this gang of men consisted of two 3-holer latrines next to the church and one hand pump for water which was a block away and to which the Goons would take only five men at a time. The latrines obviously were terribly inadequate, especially since about a third of the men suffered from the G.I.s (dysentery) and couldn't wait in line. As a consequence, they were defecating all over the adjacent grave yard and some on the graves. I'm sure this incident did not endear us with the local townspeople.
We left Halbau the next morning and by this time I had acquired a sled. Six of us loaded our packs on it and took turns pulling the sled (the six consisted of Paul [P.T.] Terrell, Ed Taylor, Salty Saltwedel, Larry Platt, Del Phelps and me). This wasn't too bad and we covered 17 Km. more to Dichenhaus. The Gooons had already made arrangements for us and we slept in various barns around the village. The one our group was in, was relatively adequate and the hay in the loft was deep but it was very crowded and we picked up some fellow travelers, FLEAS. We managed to get some hot water (a rare luxury), and we did quite a bit of trading with the local farmers who gathered around to see us as if we were in a zoo. However, we acquired potatoes, onions, more hot water, bread, etc., and felt that we had taken one more step towards survival. Also, I managed to procure a water bottle, a major tool for our inventory as the Goons didn't stop near potable water during our march. While there we were able to shave and get ourselves cleaned up a bit.
We stayed in Dichenhaus the night of the 29h, all day and night of the 30th. On Wednesday, January 31th, we marched 28 Km. to Muskau where we were quartered in a pottery/ceramics factory for three lights (January 31th, February 1st and 2nd) and two days. About half the workers in the factory were foreign prisoners. There were Polish and Ukrainian women (a phenomenon many of us hadn't even seen for many, many long
months) and several French nationals. We did quite a bit of trading here for food and some souvenirs. Also, there was plenty of hot water and we managed to clean up and dry out a bit by the furnaces.
On the morning of February 3rd we were again formed into a marching column on the road outside the factory and continued our journey, but without sleds as there had been a thaw and they were too heavy to pull without a fairly thick layer of snow. Of course, the thaw had made the roads pretty damp and muddy and the temperature was just above freezing. In addition, our packs seemed to have become at least twice as heavy to carry; but by spelling each other and sharing the load Salty, Larry, Del and I managed to accomplish the required pace and kept our places in the column. On this day we marched 21 Km. through the slush and through Muskau to the small village of Graustein. There our group was quartered in the Burgomeister's barn. We were fed boiled potatoes and some stew with a small amount of meat which we didn't even try to identify. We each received about a half a Klim can full (about IO ounces). In the barn that night Del, Larry and I put our blankets together and we slept with a relative degree of warmth.
The next morning, February 4th, we marched about 8 Km. to Spremburg where we spent about 4 hours, standing or sitting wherever we could find the space, in the gymnasium of a Panzer Division Headquarters. Here we were issued millet and vegetable soup and Salty, Larry and I heated a klim can of water and had brew (Nescafe).
About 3:00 PM we were moved out and marched 2 or 3 Km. through the middle of Spremburg to the railroad marshaling yard where we were loaded like cattle 50 men to a car in 40 men (or 8 horses) boxcars. The best description of this situation was just plain HELL. The boxcars originally were designed, I think by some sadist, to hold 40 men; actually 30 men would have been uncomfortably crowded in them. There were no sanitary measures at all and we had to sleep, eat and exist in them; not knowing how long we would have to be cooped up in them. Such uncertainty created almost unbelievable stress.
We pulled out of Spremburg about 8: 00 PM on the evening of February 4th, and by 10:00 AM on February 5th had traveled 35 Km..Time went on and we were allowed out to attend to nature's needs about every 3 or 4 hours. There were never any aborts (latrines) so everyone simply relieved themselves in public before women and children and no one (including the women and children) thought anything of it.
We were issued one Red Cross parcel per four men on February 5th, and again the same issue on the 6th. On February 6th the Goons added some more boxcars to our train and they took ten men out of our most crowded cars and filled the new ones.
Early on the morning of February 7th, the boxcar in which our little group was held, developed some kind of mechanical trouble while we were stopped at the railway station in Augsburg. We were taken out of the disabled boxcar and split into groups of three which were then divided amongst the other boxcars (I believe there were 43 boxcars in this train). The train then continued on its way and we reached Munich about 9:00 AM.
We stayed at the marshaling yards in Munich until about 1: 00 PM when we proceeded to travel to Moosburg where we were unloaded and marched to the receiving lager (enclosure) of Stalag VII-A. We spent the rest of the day and all night being deloused by standing in line to have delousing powder pumped into our clothes from hand-held pumps and then trying to get some sleep wherever we could find space within the confines of the lager. This lager was known to the Kriegies as the "Snake Pit" and was almost as uncomfortable as the boxcars. So, we had finally arrived at Stalag VII-A where we would sit out the rest of the war.
All in all, I believe that the trip, composed of the march through the terrible cold and on the icy roads and then the misery of the boxcars, included the most miserable days of my life. In retrospect, there were many interesting sights and actions observed along the way; but, also, there were many disgusting sights and actions.
Since my participation in the above described activities I have lived many places, all over the world, and made many long-time friends. However, I believe my most cherished friends were, and are, those with whom I shared the Prisoner-of War (POW) experience. We had to have helped each other over the really rough spots and marched
side-by-side through such miserable conditions in order to bond and form truly lasting fliendships. I have strong brotherly love for those few who shared my painful moments and helped me to survive probably the most onerous and dangerous days of my life, and to those few brothers ---- I SAILUTE YOU AND THANK YOU ONCE AGAIN!!!!!