THE MEMOIRS OF JACK AARON
THE DEATH MARCH
The German authorities had ordered the evacuation of all
Prisoner of War camps in the area and we began marching up to 40 kilometres
per day in freezing blizzards and with little or often no food at all to
We had been allowed one whole parcel per man when we eventually hit the trail
and I emptied the contents into my haversack, which fitted snugly - good old
uncle Jock. We weren't expecting any more food from the Germans and we weren't
On my journeys I always carried a length of baling wire, it proved very handy
for threading potatoes on. This was hung around my neck and fastened like a
necklace. Odd times when we did have a fire, the necklace was thrown in the
embers; roast potatoes for supper!
Sometimes the potatoes were frozen solid like stones, even under my battle
blouse and coat. Sometime between Christmas and the New Year we started out.
We could hear machine gun fire in the near distance. I remember thinking that
every step taken was a step closer to home. Going through the dark, silent,
frozen forest, I felt some small sense of freedom. I was glad to be away from
the Lager. The Germans warned us not to attempt to escape saying that mounted
Cossacks were under orders to shoot anyone they found in the woods.
After a few miles we came to the river Oder and the Germans, in their white
coats and helmets, were already at work wiring the bridge as we passed over
it, ready to blow it to smithereens in the face of the advancing Russian
troops. Although we walked for several hours we never heard them blow the
bridge. Thankfully we were on the right side of the river.
We walked through the night and by daybreak the guards decided we could have a
rest so they put us in stables, pigsty's, hen houses and outbuildings,
anywhere out of the snow and the bitterly cold wind. They too were thankful
for a rest.
After another long day's trek the weather eased a little. It was still
freezing but now there was less wind. At the end of the day the guards
informed us that we had covered 40 kilometres and they seemed quite pleased
with that. My only thoughts were 40 kilometres nearer to home!
That night we were bedded down in a German State farm, where there was lots of
room and plenty of straw. What a welcome relief it was from the rigours of the
harsh conditions outside. This repetitive pattern of life seemed to go on
forever. Trekking and stumbling through the snow during daylight hours and
then hoping to find some kind of shelter for the night. This didn't always
happen though; there was an awful lot of open countryside out there.
On one occasion while we were waiting to go inside this large barn, I was so
tired that I lay down right there and fell asleep in the snow. Almost
immediately a friendly boot toe nudged me in the ribs "Get up", I was
urged, "If you go to sleep there you'll never wake up again." I'm
eternally grateful to that unknown man.
There was one instance when having found shelter for the night in a barn,
three of us decided to sleep with our boots off. Digging a hole in the straw,
we put our boots in and covered them up, sleeping on top of them. The next
morning, when it was time to get up, we found we couldn't put our boots on as
they were frozen solid and covered in crystals of ice just like cast iron
boots. After some considerable time bashing them against the side of the barn
we eventually managed to get our feet inside them again.
Another thing that we found very difficult was buttoning up our great coats.
It was an impossible task. Every time our fingers touched the frozen material
it rendered them useless, you just couldn't manipulate your fingers for all
the money in the world! After the war it was said that it had been the coldest
winter experienced in Europe since records began.
On our travels the next day we came across a Jewish man propped up on his
elbows in the snow with an armed German standing behind him. The Jew gave us a
little wave as we passed by and we waved back at him. He knew, and we knew,
what was going to happen next. That poor man knew it was the end of the line
for him and he had neither the strength nor the will to offer any resistance.
We never heard the shot but it was a pitiful sight to see.
One day during the march whilst heading for the Czech border we came across a
poor German farmer with his family and chattels piled high up on a cart but
with his horse lying dead between the shafts. I felt so sorry for his wife and
children huddled together for warmth against the bitter cold, but I suppose
that similar scenes would have been repeated over and over again across the
whole eastern front, in the retreat from the Russians.
Our guards asked us if we had any real German money as opposed to the camp
money, which was of course, worthless in the outside world. Having a whip
round between us we produced some and purchased the dead horse. Going into the
farm we bedded down on straw and immediately fell asleep, thinking how lucky
we were to find shelter for the night from the bitterly cold weather outside.
Around the early hours of the morning we were awakened from our slumber by the
cry of, "Come and get it." Eternally grateful to the old front-line
soldier for giving me back my mess tin, we went over to where the cooks had
prepared us a hot meal of a kind of porridge and a good slice of horse meat
which was absolutely tender to eat! The poor old horse!
I had read about the 1812 retreat from Moscow and sympathised with the French
soldiers and their terrible suffering in the snow and ice with very little
food. Now I had a fair idea myself of what they went through.
Having reached Czechoslovakia my first impression was of seeing tremendous,
(and to me, terrifying), ski slopes, and lots of religious shrines - some
carved out of solid rock faces. Having got to the top of the mountain on this
narrow pass, we headed west. Coming towards us, heading east at high speed,
was a battalion of Germans loaded with all the instruments of war. We didn't
want to stop and neither did they. However, our German Sergeant Major, a
leader of men and a first class soldier, went over and had a little chat with
them. The result was that they allowed us right of way. Personally I think
they were glad of the chance to rest for a short while and besides, the
outlook in the direction that they were heading looked far from inviting.
Our German Sergeant Major was the same one who had helped me stack the wood
behind the stove back at the Lager. Ordinarily that would have been regarded
as an act of sabotage, which according to the Germans carried the death
penalty, but he never uttered a word about it to anyone. He was truly a great
man and with all due respect we were lucky to have such a man in charge of us
I remember early into the march going along this road and in the far distance,
very high up, were the vapour trails of American bombers. They seemed to be
heading straight for us so everybody got themselves off the road, we didn't
need telling twice! A clear road would hopefully indicate to the American
observers that there was nothing there, and it seemed to work but I think they
had more important business elsewhere.
Meanwhile as we were sitting on the verge with our backs to the road, who
should we see coming along the road but old Snowy! the German Shepherd dog
from camp. He sniffed at the back of everyone along the long line of POW's
until he reached us. I was third from last with the old guard right at the
end. When Snowy reached him, he cocked his leg up and peed all over him.
That's the absolute truth! I wonder what was going through Snowy's mind while
he was peeing?
Meanwhile the terrain was getting mighty rugged. I think we were somewhere in
the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains where it didn't forget to snow with
a piercingly cold wind. Life was getting a really rough now with no food from
our German captors. Hunger is a terrible, terrible thing. It drags you down
and takes your strength and spirit away. It always amazes me how much the
human body can stand without food.
Despite the prospects of going home, trudging along with each man wrapped up
in his own thoughts, you didn't waste energy thinking of mothers cooking or
what you would do on your nights out, you just carried on like zombies, numbed
by the cold and lack of food.
We continued our journey westward, finding shelter at night from the elements
whenever and wherever we could. At one particular farm we waited until the old
farmer had slopped the pigs out. Once he had retreated to his kitchens one or
two of the lads, including me, shushed the pigs out of the way. They protested
noisily but the old boy was used to that racket so didn't take much notice. As
quickly as we could we picked the best of the potatoes and thus enjoyed a
little warm supper. Not a lot but every little helped. Poor old pigs!
Leaving Czechoslovakia with the signposts for Ratibor and Prague fading into
the distance we had a rough idea where we were heading - Bavaria.
In Bavaria we embarked on some open railway trucks and having passed over a
river someone said, "that's the Blue Danube". I thought it was a rich brown
colour much like the river Aire. It certainly didn't look very romantic to me.
We hadn't travelled very far out into the open countryside when we saw coming
towards us at high altitude, more American bombers. Not waiting for the
guard's permission this time we jumped down and tried to put as much distance
as possible between us and the trucks before the bombers arrived. I think the
guards did the same thing but I never saw them. However, the planes sailed
right over us. They obviously didn't think it was very important bombing empty
wagons as there were more important targets ahead like ball-bearing factories
and oil refineries.
Pressing on again, this time without the railway wagons as it was considered
too dangerous, we found ourselves at a place called Regensburgh which looked
as though it had been recently visited by the American bombers. There were
bomb craters all over the place. Eventually the guards found us a place to
take rest in some empty barns about a mile from the railway line
Stabled up on the railway was a rake of railway coaches, which we could see
clearly. We hadn't been settled in long when suddenly a bunch of marauding
American Mustang fighters came over and attacked the railway coaches which
immediately exploded into flames.
I didn't know what the coaches contained but within minutes they were reduced
to white-hot ashes and twisted metalwork. Any people in those coaches wouldn't
have stood a chance - it all happened so quickly.
From the open doors of our barns we had a clear view of everything that was
happening. Standing there was stupid really with fighters zooming about. One
decided to have a go at us. Directly opposite our barn stood some farm
buildings probably no more than about fifty yards away. The space in between
was grassland and formed part of an orchard. The ground directly opposite
suddenly erupted with huge chunks of grass flying up into the air and
continued right down into the orchard. After the attack someone who picked up
an empty shell said it was cannon fire. "I'll take your word for it," I
Passing by a German airfield, set out on the tarmac were three beautiful
German Messerschmitt Fighter Planes preparing for take off, and ready to do
battle with the American bomber 'Mustang' escort planes.
These Mustang's had been updated with a formidable cannon and a British Rolls
Royce engine. The three German planes went up but within minutes all three had
been shot down. Whether the Germans were getting short of experienced fighter
pilots or what I wouldn't know.
We arrived at a huge Lager deep inside Bavaria, which was still under armed
guard. A bunch of Americans called out "Who are you and where have you come
When we told them from Upper Silesia they asked us "When did you set off?"
"Christmas," we told them. They could hardly believe it but I bet they
could smell us coming!
It was now sometime in April and having sorted ourselves out and claimed a
bunk apiece I said to my next door neighbour "hey look at my legs" They were
shiny and swollen and my skin felt tight. He said his were the same. Then an
old sweat said told us it was caused by a lack of vitamins and assured us that
it would be alright again once we'd had some proper food. We received our food
parcels from the Red Cross a short while later, which was like "Manna from
Heaven," and the 'Beri Beri', as the old sweat called it, cleared up like