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Britain's Shame

How the Nation Ignored its Heroes

Tony Rennell 

The Observer

The brave group captain knew when he was beaten. He had fought the Germans for five years, first of all in combat in the air, then face to face on the ground as a prisoner of war . After being shot down, he survived Hitler's stalags and the SS, faced death from starvation and disease, and managed to make it home in 1945 against all the odds. But the War Office civil servant he had to deal with was simply too much for him. Despite all he had endured, the RAF officer was asked to account for the loss of his uniform and his flying kit while a prisoner. He filled in Form 1784 and requested financial compensation for, among other things, the fountain pen his German captors had taken from him.

He was refused. The civil servant's brusque letter informed him that no money could be paid for the pen 'in the absence of a receipt by the enemy'.

The letter - preserved with the group captain's other papers in the archives of the Imperial War Museum - shows clearly how little the plight of prisoners of war was understood, even back in 1945.

How could an official in his cosy Whitehall den have imagined that a man who baled out of a burning plane into hostile territory and hit the ground surrounded by armed and jack-booted enemy soldiers should have asked for a receipt?

And yet many civilians - many military people too - had a fanciful notion of what life was like behind barbed wire in the hundreds of squalid camps that by 1945 held more than a quarter of a million Allied POWs. Letters would arrive from friends at home asking 'What's the beer like in Germany, then?' A fiancée would write telling her man not to go messing about with those German girls.

Other letters from home had a nastier edge. 'I've left you for a proper soldier,' more than one POW was told by his wife or girlfriend. 'I'd rather be with a fighting man than with one who gave up.'

A terrible link was made in many people's minds: that it was shameful to have been captured. It was a feeling that lived on long after the war. It was also most keenly felt by the men themselves when they were liberated. It was the reason why many would not speak about their experiences.

Their stories were airbrushed out of history, unless they had been one of the small band of escapers.

the reality of POW life was far removed from the romantic (and entirely fictionalised) antics of a Steve McQueen jumping barbed wire on a motorbike in The Great Escape

But the reality of POW life was far removed from the romantic (and entirely fictionalised) antics of a Steve McQueen jumping barbed wire on a motorbike in The Great Escape. For most, life was a struggle to survive - semi-starved, stripped of dignity and demoralised by 'lethargy and decay', as one of them put it in his diary.

And then, in the last months of the war, they went through an ordeal that until now has never been properly recorded or appreciated. Their release was not a quick and simple liberation. Most camps were on the desolate eastern borders of Germany. They stood in the way of the advancing Soviet army, and rather than leave the POWs to be released by the Russians, the Germans force-marched them westwards.

Conditions were terrible. January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the twentieth century. Through blizzards and in temperatures as low as -25, long columns of POWs dragged their way across Germany ahead of the rampant Red Army. Hundreds died along the way from frostbite and exhaustion. Dysentery claimed others. Some who tried to escape or could not go on were shot by guards.

Some were reduced to eating grass, rats, cats and dogs

Little food was provided, and they scavenged to survive in war-torn countryside and bomb-blasted towns. Some were reduced to eating grass, rats, cats and dogs; anything they could lay their hands on. Men already lean from years of subsistence rations lost a a further five or six stones. They were just skin and bone by the end.

Some were herded into stinking cattle trucks for part of the journey but others walked more than 600 miles and were on the road for four months. Throughout, they were in constant fear of being massacred by the SS and other Nazi fanatics out to take their revenge for the impending defeat of their country and ideology.

Marching westwards through a Germany collapsing in chaos, the POWs were escaping one war front - the Russian - only to run into another. As the columns reached the western side of Germany they ran into the advancing British and American armies. For some, this brought long-awaited liberation. Others were not so lucky. They were marched in a different direction now, towards the Baltic Sea, where diehard Nazis were said to be establishing a last redoubt with the exhausted, starving POWs as human shields and hostages.

It did not come to that Götterdämmerung finale. German resistance collapsed and the remaining POWs were freed, but not before some died in circumstances tinged with even greater tragedy.

To patrolling Allied fighter pilots, a column of POWs was indistinguishable from retreating enemy soldiers. In one incident, at a village called Gresse, 60 Allied POWs died in a hail of bullets from RAF Typhoons. To have got within days of survival after years of captivity and to die from what in later wars would be disguised under that awful euphemism 'friendly fire' was beyond comprehension, beyond tears.

Today, at the Cenotaph in London and at monuments around Britain, a country remembers with gratitude those who fought and sacrificed so much. Among the lines marching along Whitehall, their backs as straight as age and infirmities allow, will be a small contingent of POWs from the Second World War.

They have no medals on their chests to mark their years as prisoners. A grateful nation was not grateful enough to recognise their heroism, even in this very simple way.

In the United States such a medal exists, and the thousands of Americans who suffered side by side with British POWS in the same camps and on the same marches described above can wear them proudly.

But even there the recognition was belated. It took more than 40 years before opposition could be overcome from the mean-minded and the downright macho who believed it was morally wrong to honour anyone who surrendered.

IN Britain, men in their eighties still burn with indignation at the suffering they endured as prisoners all those years but more so at the way it has gone unappreciated and unrecognised.

Who has ever heard of Sergeant 'Dixie' Deans? This young Scot was a legendary POW camp leader. His finest hour was after the slaughter at Gresse. In an act of sustained courage surely worthy of a Victoria Cross, he picked his way through a battlefield to warn Allied commanders not to strafe POW columns again. Then, as if his duty was not done, he refused the offer of liberation and went back through the front lines, back into German hands, to be with his men again.

The thousands of men he calmly and courageously battled to keep alive never forgot him. The RAF did.

The thousands of men he calmly and courageously battled to keep alive never forgot him. The RAF did. When he made it home, his four years as a POW meant nothing. It was made plain to him that there was no future for him in the service and he left.

Deans died in 1989, a symbol of the slight many POWs felt about the way they were treated. Today, amazingly, there are still unresolved complaints about money. The group captain was never compensated for his fountain pen. Similar petty-minded bureaucrats decided to cut the POWs' back-pay as well, on the assumption that they had been paid by the Germans while they were in captivity.

The Germans had, in fact, doled out something called lagergeld, funny money that had no value inside the camp or outside. The notes could not even be put to use as toilet paper - one of the most sought-after luxuries of camp life - because they were too small.

But when the prisoners got home, up to 10 per cent was deducted from their back pay in lieu of lagergeld. Even more aggravating was that the 10 per cent was also taxed, as if they had actually had it in their pockets to spend.

Consistently over the years, government after government has refused to pay the difference. In 1945, the sum of money a man lost was significant. Now, with inflation - and with the natural wastage of death among would-be beneficiaries - the amount is a mole hill. But the insult still keenly felt is mountainous.

It also galls former prisoners of the Germans that the Government has consistently taken the view that no compensation is due. The Germans - unlike the Japanese - are deemed to have adhered to the Geneva Convention. Any acts of brutality were by individuals and not institutional.

The weight of evidence that John Nichol - a POW himself in the Gulf war in 1991 - and I have compiled in our book suggests that the marches on which so many POWs died and so many others suffered were in contravention of international agreement and did amount to an atrocity of war.

It is, though, not the money that matters any more. It is respect. When the call came to assemble in the snow outside his hut just after Christmas 1944, Private Les Allan was wearing work clogs. He had no time to go back to put on his army boots. In wooden shoes he marched the entire width of Germany. To this day he limps. To this day it hurts that POWs like him are forgotten. Today of all days he and his comrades deserve to be remembered. Their courage should also be a timely reminder for governments intent on war that those they send to risk their lives deserve dignity and honour when they return.

 Tony Rennell is co-author with John Nichol of The Last Escape (Viking Penguin)

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