How the Nation
Ignored its Heroes
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
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
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
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
Tony Rennell is co-author with John Nichol
of The Last Escape (Viking Penguin)