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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

THE MEMOIRS OF JACK AARON


CHAPTER NINE


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 sustain us.

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 disappointed.

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 there.

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 thought.

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 from?"

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 magic.

Jack Aaron

CHAPTER  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11



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