A KIND OF FREEDOM
Impressions improved as the morning wore on. A foraging party was allowed to go out with a handcart and escort to see if we could find any food in the town. The Russians apparently had little themselves and relied on what could be captured, so we were accompanied by the escort. There was no sound of firing now and the atmosphere became relaxed. Several of the infantry soldiers, some having discarded their top apparel showing smart and clean uniforms, came in through the gates in boisterous mood. One, still wearing his sheep skin came directly to me and, thrusting his hand inside his coat produced a bottle of what might have been vodka or German Schnapps and gestured for vessels to pour into with cries of 'Comrade!' I went into the hut and emerged with two tin mugs. Pouring liberally into each, he returned the bottle to its home, and raising his mug and shouted 'Stalin - Roosevelt - Churchill!' Impressed by all this I raised mine and began 'Churchill....' but got no further. Seemingly from nowhere he had whipped out a large automatic pistol and had it pressed onto the end of my nose. 'Niet!' It had to be ‘Stalin – Roosevelt – Churchill’, in that order. And he had the pistol. Who was I to argue? So the toast was recited as required and I took a sip. Oh God! It burnt my lips, my mouth and tongue, but a sip was not good enough, the pistol pressed again and I downed the lot until even my boots seemed on fire. That was OK, and with my voice no more than a gasp I was able to convey that I was English, you know, from London. He understood that, and so I learned that I was an 'Ingliski - comrade!'. He now produced the bottle again asking for another to drink with him. I could not wish the experience on my companions so collared a Frenchman and stood aside to indulge the satisfaction of a repeat performance.
Soon after we were told that we could go out ourselves without escort but not to take anything at all, looters were shot. We three sallied out along the road, which had no doubt been a prosperous part of the town with large houses. There were no shops, so we looked in one of the houses to see how the better off Germans had lived. Choosing one with the door wide open, we were disconcerted to find 8 or 9 Russians sitting on the floor around a wind-up gramophone and a nice fire going in the grate. They looked at us and, seemingly unconcerned, returned their interest to their records. We withdrew and went upstairs where everything had been removed except the heavy furniture. We were in the front bedroom immediately above the soldiers, another record began playing a classic piece and all hell broke loose with machine pistols opening up below and bullets tearing up through the floorboards. Petrified, we sprang into action heading for the stairs and tumbled down to find the Russians still sitting around the gramophone. One was energetically re-winding it whilst another put another record on. Beethoven's Fifth symphony began to fill the air, but not for long. As soon as the tune could be identified, the record was grabbed, flung into the air and shot to pieces. I am sure that if a woman had been with us, those Russians would have got a right earful for being so thoughtless. We faded out into the road grateful for a narrow escape and returning to our hut, did the very English thing, we made tea.
Taking our tea outside to see what was new, we saw a truck had pulled up and a mortar, larger than we’d seen before, being set up behind the main building. At first, we thought that perhaps it was simply a gesture to demonstrate protection. No, ammunition boxes were also being brought, and a telephone line to an officer sitting on a box of ammunition in deep conversation with the phone. The mortar was set at an angle out across the town and when it was ready, started firing as fast as they could go. The alarming feature to me was that the fellow that popped the bombs into the tube was another of those short stocky Mongolian types. He had to leap to reach the aperture some two metres off the ground and then land crouched like a frog with his hands over his ears. It seemed quite reasonable that if he misjudged, or tripped, the bomb, about 200mm, would be dropped and finish the war for all of us.
After a while, seeing that he had no intention of wrong footing and with appropriate gesticulations, we suggested that we help carry boxes up from the truck and received nods of approval. We realised that after our ordeal we were not fit for heavy work. We left them to it, walked to the rear of the compound and scrambled up onto the end of the air raid shelter to see if we could get a view of the target. We could still not see far enough but our curiosity came to an abrupt end when a shell whistled over to land some 100 metres away. I suppose it was only to be expected as more came, landing well to our left and right. Suddenly a different noise: indicating a shell coming close. Lofty and Jock dropped flat. I jumped into an uncovered area nearby. I never told anyone what I believed happened: as I jumped the shell landed amongst the huts in the compound with a terrific explosion flinging debris far and wide. As I landed on all fours, something the size of a large hand grenade, landed in front of me with a trail of smoke. I believe that I jumped straight back out again in almost the same movement without touching the sides. I have read of remarkable feats being performed in extreme circumstances, but I had no witness. The other two were picking themselves up, smothered in dirt and snow, shaken but OK.
We set off along the top of the shelter to the main hut for cover and saw, immediately above the air raid shelter, a heavy machine gun laying on its side and three dead Germans. They had adopted a position behind a tree on top of the bank no more than two metres away from where we had been trapped beneath them. No wonder we had been so heavily bombarded. I have to wonder if they knew we were there and tolerated my excursion at the dead of night, but I think it more likely they arrived afterwards. Down at the main building, the mortar section was calmly packing up and we were all being called together. The Germans were mounting a counter attack, volunteers were required to go out and round up handcarts or anything else that could be found on wheels. Obviously the search was restricted to our immediate locality but after an hour, despite shells coming over, half a dozen carts were brought in and the bed cases loaded onto them. We had to get out, but had no idea where to.
It was obvious that every hand would be needed to haul and push the heavy old carts so the luxury of the sledge died there and then. We sorted out our belongings and draped them about ourselves. I was last to leave as I hunted around desperately for more cord or string, so by the time I got out onto the road, the creaking and squeaking column had turned off out of sight. Thinking I would catch them up by short cutting between the houses I came out onto another street but found that the column must have gone straight across the end. I hesitated to follow when I saw some young lads active in the road. What the hell were they doing here with everyone evacuated? I drew back into a house and watched through a window.
The lads were working down either side of the tree lined road, apparently making holes in the trees with hand drills, another stood at the top keeping watch, soon to be joined by the others as they finished whatever they were up to. A group of Russians appeared in the street and an officer was offered a small book and pencil. Autograph hunters - here? It seemed incredible, but as the officer put pen to paper there was small explosion and he staggered back. At the same time the boys started running back down the road, and with a large nail and hammer clouted the pre-drilled holes in each tree firing a bullet that had been inserted. Before they got far machine pistols opened up and killed them all. I knew well enough of the dedication of the Hitler Youth but this, however ingenious, was pathetic and now they lay dead when they should have been miles away, at school.
I stayed where I was for a while, aware that the column was getting further away all the time. I decided to retrace my steps to the hospital gates and start again in the hope of catching them up. This worked, and having learnt to greet any Russians with a clenched fist shouting 'Inglisky - Soyusniki!' was able to point ahead asking 'Comrades?' It took a long time to catch them up despite their slow pace. I was able to heave some of my gear onto a cart and join in the pushing although, quite frankly, for a while I was glad of the support of the cart.
The journey continued until dusk when, arriving at a large barn, we settled down for the night. There were no rations but we did have water and there was some provisions and treatment for the bed cases. The next morning we continued expecting to reach some destination at any time but again we journeyed on all day with few stops for rest. Oddly, we heared the sounds of battle again. Not close, but puzzling since we imagined we were moving further away from a front that was, presumably, advancing in the opposite direction. At each junction would be a Russian or two directing us. Frequently these were women, as heavily armed as their menfolk with rifles slung across their backs and a machine gun in their hands. Again we continued until darkness drew in and this time settled into a cold bleak warehouse with no straw, the conventional soldiers bedding. The next day, we nearly gave up believing we had lost whatever way we were supposed to be pursuing because there was now firing all around us, and for the first time became aware of 'Stalin's Organs' although we did not know that. What we did know was that the sky above us would periodically be filled with these screaming things passing over us in addition to the whine of shells. We had no way of knowing that far from a solid front progressing west, fighting was going on in pockets all over East Prussia. So, as often as not, we were in No Man's Land. It is difficult to describe our predicament. We had not been fit to start with, and now, with two bed patients already dead from exposure, our prospects seemed to diminish by the hour.
There have been many stories of survival. Since the war 'survival' has been made a sport, a leisure activity. One reads of people aiming to achieve extraordinary feats, but there has always been planning, rescue and communication facilities and all that. Yet here, without any of those things, a decrepit bunch of invalids struggling along, day after day, in the depths of winter, through the middle of a fiercely fought war going on all around: really, how would YOU describe it? In all, it took about six days. We had lost track of time, to reach what I understood was Rosenberg, a name often mentioned by returning working parties back at Stalag. Search as I have, I’ve never been able to find Rosenberg on a map. The nearest being Rastenberg where Hitler had often stayed. Whatever, it was here that we eventually arrived leaving the sounds of battle once more in the distance.
A large building with a surrounding high wall was our destination. Each and every one of us had to be checked and admitted individually with the help of the Serb. Eventually, there were six of us still out on the pavement, we three, Captain King the padre and two medical orderlies. It seemed incomprehensible that, having played our part and come all this way that we should not be allowed in at least to recuperate. The Serb explained that the Russians had come so far, so fast, that they had not been able to cope with their own problems. The huge door closed on us and we sank to the pavement against the wall. Too weary to talk, we fell asleep where we were, exhausted and disappointed. We had some shelter in the gateway but woke frozen through and stiff. I wonder that we woke at all.
The padre had been given a small piece of notepaper with one Russian word on it that pronounced and sounded like 'Ostromasovitski'. We had no idea what it meant but the note had to be shown at every checkpoint. We were to 'go home' but to the question of which way, had been told 'try Moscow'. In addition we had been instructed to stay on the roads or be shot. There did not seem any point other than to start walking again, but apart from many groups of Russian soldiers we saw no one and there was no opportunity of getting food. After walking all day we passed through a built up area and so, when night drew in, had no difficulty finding a place to stay. It was obvious that we had a long trek in front of us. Optimistically we assumed that as we drew away from the front we would find food. For the first time in a week we made a fire, brewed some tea, took our boots off and settled down.
It was a mistake. In the morning we found our feet had swollen so much that we could not get our boots on again. We had travelled the best part of a week, pushing and pulling with our boots slipping and sliding over the cobbles and ice. It was not just an inconvenience, it was a real problem, as we hobbled around in socks trying to restore normality. I took my socks off and, hobbling outside, pissed over my feet. I’d heard that it was an old soldier's trick. It didn’t make any noticeable difference. After a while it was possible to painfully ease our boots on and hobble around without lacing them up, and so despairingly we set off along the road again. Slowly and surely the swelling and pain subsided and we were able to swing along in a normal manner.
The morning passed and our surroundings were still built up, rows and rows of empty houses. How so many people could have been evacuated, taking so much with them was a mystery. Certainly we had seen no signs of refugees on the roads at all and imagined that Prussia, being part of Germany, the evacuation had been conducted on an organised scale perhaps a week or two before. The simple fact was that apart from water, which could always be obtained by melting snow, there was no food at all and our last Red Cross food had been finished several days before. Although we didn’t discuss it, it occupied our minds. When we came out into open country the padre asked us to stop. There was a fork in the road ahead and nobody apparently on duty. It was the padre’s idea that we might have better luck finding food in the countryside if we split up into two sets of three, taking separate roads. If we got directed together again, so be it. It seemed sensible and so, giving us a fair copy of the Russian password on a scrap of paper, we all shook hands and went our separate ways, into the unknown.
During our journey pushing the bed cases, we had not seen a living soul other than Russians. If there were dead bodies it can not be recorded for with our heads down, concentrating on our efforts with the carts, there had been no mood to contemplate the passing scene. Now it was different. Across the fields on either side were bodies laying scattered. At first we thought they might have been 'Dad's Army' volunteers, but they were all civilians. There were no signs of arms or equipment. The only thing they had in common was that all footwear had been removed and all mouths had been forced open as though in search for gold teeth, which were common in that part of the world. Our road was a mess. Clearly large convoys of tanks, vehicles and boots had traversed it, either by withdrawing Germans, advancing Russians or some of both. There were bodies on the road as well, crushed so flat that they were no more than imprints, scraps of clothing so muddied that it could not be said what colour they were.
I have to admit that, even during the early period of prison life, despite a strict religious upbringing, I had become some kind of agnostic, hoping there was indeed a God but having no faith in the concept that prayer could change things. Indeed, back in Stalag, when the padre held a service at one end of the compound, I, like as not, would be at the other end throwing stones at sparrows to try and get a little meat. They would kneel and pray for the parcels to come when they did not arrive. Prayer could not alter the fact that the parcels had to come via Lisbon and Spain where many people were recovering from the Civil War and as badly off as us. The Spanish broke into the rail wagons which often arrived half or completely empty. Despite having been in action and having fired some 50 rounds at the Germans when trying to cross that canal in Belgium, this was different. I could not help but pray for those I walked over. It was the least I could do.
That evening we came to a cottage that seemed part of a smallholding. It meant leaving the road a little, but needs be. Lofty went on ahead a short way and Jock stayed on the road keeping watch whilst I went in. There was nobody about so I called them and we inspected our accommodation. Naturally we had been quiet and so, going round the back in search of fuel for a fire I was dumbstruck to see three chickens through the gloom, perched on a beam just above my head level. Cautiously I approached and got one by the legs whilst the others flew off squawking. Delighted with my capture, I transferred its legs to my right hand and seized its neck as my country cousin had shown me and gave it a twist. I was so excited and tried so hard that its head came off in my hand whilst the bird continued to fight like hell. We soon had a fire going and hot drinks, always our first task. Jock plucked the bird whilst Lofty and I reconnoitered further.
I found a mound of snow covering a small potato cloche so, carefully digging through the frozen earth was able to extract more than enough for our immediate needs, then carefully packed the earth back again so they did not spoil. Neither of us knew how to clean and prepare a chicken, so all of its inside was disposed of and the rest barbecued in separate pieces. With the potatoes boiled, and washed down with more tea we could not believe our fortunes had changed at last, not forgetting to express our hope that the padre and medics would fare as well. Truth to tell, we were very near the end of our tether. No such thought had passed our lips, in fact we had not talked much at all. If there was such a thought it was to 'keep going' and I have no doubt the others felt the same.
Since the war there have been many books and films based on survival, mostly enhanced as entertainment. There are survival projects, some selling the spirit of adventure whilst others gave reasoned scientific research to draw sponsorship. It was usual to have planning and preparation beforehand, radio contact and rescue facilities if things went wrong. Fair enough, if that is how they get their kicks or earn a living. But how would those people have coped in our situation with the only motivation, the only driving spirit was, that we were 'going home' or having a damned good try. It was about nine days since we had left Marienburg (now Malborg) and still there were sounds of battle around. We felt that we had done the worst bit, and anyway, maybe we would soon arrive at some base that would put us on transport and speed us on our way.
The next morning we set off in high spirits, swinging along and beginning to talk more freely. There were more bodies in the fields. As we drew close to a road junction we could see a group squatting on a wide verge. They were all civilians, perhaps 20 in all including women. As we drew nearer they did not stir, one not even to take his pipe out of his mouth. They were all dead. Frozen stiff, not shot. We found other groups on our journey like this and did not understand. Only afterwards did it occur to me that since all the East Prussians had gone West, these people could have been Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians that had been taken into Germany as slave labour. Abandoned by the retreating Germans, they had headed homewards, but when meeting the advancing Russians on the crowded roads, the same order 'Don't leave the road or you will be shot!' had been applied with horrifying effect. Those that had cut off across the fields had been shot and those that had stayed on the roads had been rounded up into groups, but without any organisation, they had waited in vain until they froze. Obviously the same would befall us if we grew too weak to continue, uniformed or not.
What of these Russians then? After returning home, all too often a pint was pushed my way with the comment, 'You were with the Russians weren't you, what were they like?' There is no doubt that I could have got all the free drinks I could wish for, simply by talking about those days. But the effect of those experiences was so devastating that it seemed a sacrilege (that's good for an agnostic?) to make entertainment out of it, although I am sure some were sincere in their curiosity. Anyway, I soon learned to counter with 'Well, they have got arms and legs the same as we have...' and that was usually enough!
The fact is that they were human beings like us, and as described earlier, some came from their far provinces and often were short, dark and of Mongolian appearance. Their clothes, arms and equipment were good, some of it was American. Away from the actual fighting areas they were pleasant cheerful people. Those with the tanks and aircraft were taller and of European appearance, educated or cultured looking if you prefer, but their rules were different. Everyone was a 'Comrade' whatever rank and despite their obvious excitement at taking their revenge on the Germans and enthusiasm for pursuing them, they had nothing else. Their lines were stretched to the limits, very short of food, often relying on what they captured. Some had American 'K' rations and large tins of Spam were frequently seen used as eating vessels. Their rules were simple, you toed the line or you were dead - the life of the individual did not seem very important at all.