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Private J. D. Caves: The Long Journey Home

Excerpt from the Last Escape

Excerpt from the Last Escape

This passage describes the evacuation of POWs from the Stalag VIIIB work camps around Teschen. Denis, evacuated from the Stalag VIIIB work camp at Oderburg, would have had a similar experience.

Hundreds of thousands of British and American servicemen were held as POWs in camps across Nazi Germany by the time of the Normandy landings in June 1944. As winter settled across Europe and the Allied advance threatened German borders, prisoners were moved away from liberating forces. The POWs were forced to march hundreds of miles in appalling conditions. Hundreds died of disease, starvation and exhaustion. Yet when the war was over those who survived found their extraordinary tale was largely ignored and forgotten.

This is one of the most courageous and brutal tales of the final months of the Second World War.

Stalag VIIIB was at Teschen in the far south-east corner of Germany, on the frontier with Poland and Czechoslovakia, and was a focal point for work camps at the many mines in the area. The flight from the Russians took the POWs completely by surprise. They were hustled out of bed by their guards in the middle of the night and were on the road immediately.

One prisoner writes: 'It was pitch dark in the countryside and freezing cold as we trudged along narrow winding roads. In the next 48 hours, we stopped for two hours only, so desperate were the Germans to get away from the Russian advance. We were keen to keep on the move too because the Russians were just as likely to mistake us for Germans and shoot us. When they finally decided we were out of the immediate danger area, they allowed us to sleep. But by then we were lost. Apparently we should have rendezvoused with the main body of British prisoners from Teschen but we had missed them and we were on our own.'

As they marched along country roads, in towns and villages along the way, the people were in out-and-out panic. The SS were shooting Russian prisoners of war and leaving their bodies to line the very roads that the Soviet tanks would soon be sweeping along. With good reason, the locals feared they would pay with their lives for this brutality. No one was safe. In the chaos, a wrong move meant death. A party of Ukrainian slave labourers had heard that their Russian liberators were close and had risen up against their guards, 'but they had jumped the gun and were all being shot.' The small group headed southwest towards the mountains of the Sudetenland, struggling through deepening snow, fighting off frostbite. Eventually they came down out of the mountains and turned on to bigger roads, where they found the main column of prisoners - 'thousands and thousands of them' - and joined up with them. Many were Russians, and still being appallingly treated by the German guards. The trail went on along minor roads, missing the towns and winding through the forests of Czechoslovakia. What food they received was watery dried vegetable soup and that not very often. They drank from cattle troughs. At night they were packed into big barns.

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Denis' route westward across Czechoslovakia in 1945 to eventual liberation in Bavaria

Denis' route westward across Czechoslovakia in 1945 to eventual liberation in Bavaria

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Timeline of Denis' Great March: January 1945-May 1945

1945 World War II placename Denis' reference Modern placename* Location notes Passages in handscript are from Denis' notebook
27 Jan Oderburg Oderburg near Ratibor Raciborz, PL Railway junction on Polish/Czech border between Bohumin, CZ and Chalupki, PL 30km north of Ostrava, CZ. The Oderburg work camp was evacuated the same night as Stalag VIIIB Teschen was evacuated, hurriedly and apparently in the middle of a snowstorm. 8pm: Grand Trek or retreat from Moscow?
28 Jan Altendorf Altendorf Stará Ves nad Ondrejnicí, CZ 15km southwest of Ostrau/Ostrava. Day in snow Guest house and hospitality.
30 Jan Kunewald Runewold Kunín, CZ 20km east-southeast of Odrau/Odry, 10km north of Nový Jicín.
1 Feb Odrau Jagsdorf near Odrau Odry, CZ 25km northwest of Nový Jicín.
2 Feb Schmitzau Schmudou Kovarov, CZ 3km north of Potstat, west of Odrau/Odry.
3 Feb Paslawitz Praslavice, CZ 10km east of Olomouc, just south of Velka Bystrice.
7 Feb Stephanau Sternau Southwest of Sternberg/Šternberk, 60km southwest of Krnov.
9 Feb Littau Lellau/Lillan Litovel, CZ West of Šternberk, southeast of Muglitz/Mohelnice.
10 Feb Müglitz Muglitz Mohelnice, CZ 80km north-northeast of Brno.
Regetz Rajec, CZ 5km southeast of Hohenstadt/Zábreh.
11 Feb Lukawitz Luketach (Lukawetz) Lukavice, CZ Halfway between Müglitz/Mohelnice and Hohenstadt/Zábreh.
Out of Protectorate again, worse luck. 5gms tobacco. Lots of soup.
16 Feb Nemile near Hohenstadt Nemile near Zábreh, CZ Nemile is 2km west of Hohenstadt/Zábreh.
18 Feb Sichelsdorf Sickeldorf Zichlinek, CZ 25km west of Hohenstadt/Zábreh. Protectorate.
20 Feb Triebitz Triebitz Trebovice 20km east of Litomyšl.
21 Feb Kornetz Kornice, CZ 3km north of Leitomischl/Litomyšl.
23 Feb Beistawitz Unidentified Spring coming. Onwards, ever onwards. Barns and backache…
4 Mar Radim Unidentified Birthday.
8 Mar Priory Hall, Pinched case of honey. Soup and bread for rations. Cigarettes from...[?]
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11 Mar Hostin Unidentified Cigs. issue 62 bypassing Prag sign 100k to Vienna. Heading out to Sudeten. Green buds showing.
17 Mar Koleschawitz Koleschawitz Kolešovice, CZ Northwest of Rakonitz, west of Kladno. Signs of parcels.
19 Mar Pladen Pladen Blatno, CZ Close to railway west of Jechnitz/Jesenice. More signs of parcels. No rations eating horse.
20 Mar Luk near Luck Luka, CZ North of Luditz, southeast of Kalrsbad/Karlovy Vary.
Near Luck and luck it was. 3 parcels 1C 1A and 1F between four men. 14 fags each (140 Chesterfield and 140 F between 6 of us.)
21 Mar Long hills and hard trek (no German rations) to Leingrubber but oh! the delight of English food again. Raisins butter biscuits tea and fags. Still waiting on rations however.
22 Mar Karlsbad Bypassed Karlsbad and Marenbad Karlovy Vary; Mariánské Lázne, CZ Marenbad/Mariánské Lázne is 40km south-southeast of Karlsbad/Karlovy Vary. If the column was heading west between Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lázne it would be heading towards Cheb in the direction of Bavaria.
…and one French parcel Pfeffengrün and 2pk between eleven. What eating - nougat fruit bars biscuits.
Mar Pilsen, Nuremberg Heading in direction of Pilsen and Nurnberg Plzen, CZ Possibly heading south from Cheb towards Weiden; Beyond Weiden is the Nuremberg-Pilsen road.
Apr Weiden Stopped outskirts of Weiden Weiden, DE Weiden is halfway between Nuremberg and Pilsen.
Good barn, planes and raiding. Day helping bombed villages. ½ parcel.
11 Apr Plattling Plattling Plattling, DE 140km northeast of Munich, southeast of Nuremberg, on the Isar river. The POWs were set to work repairing the railway.
3 days hungry - arbeit[?] cheese.
The Raid. What a raid - perfect. Red Cross wagons of parcels - nights of salvage and plunder - days of work and eating and strafing. Are we recognised or not?
24 Apr Small village on Iser 9km from Plattling Possibly Landau, southwest of Plattling.
We moved - buying wagon - civvies and SS raid our lager 12 kilos. Barn buying eggs and anything.
27 Apr Landau Landau Landau an der Isar, DE 110km northeast of Munich, southwest of Plattling.
2.30am marching again through Landau. More planes diving over us. The same old question: do they or do they not recognise us? Arrived at a barn at 3.30pm. Completely done. Called 1:30 a.m left before (?) a.m. more rain, asleep on feet. Barn at 1:30 p.m. Wet and tired.
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29 Apr Vilsbiburg Vilsbiberg Vilsbiberg, DE 70km northeast of Munich, 10km southeast of Landshut. Called at 1.30am marched through Vilsbiberg. Rumours still rife. March just a straggle.
30 Apr Stopped all day. Rumours Yanks on us.
1 May Kraiberg Freiberg, but a later letter says: 'ended up at Kraiberg on banks of Inn' Kraiberg, DE Southwest of Muhldorf.
Left 3.45am marched all day, snow, sleet, Huns demolishing, crossed Isar (river) again Freiberg, barn 7.45pm
2 May Snow everywhere again. Refuse to march further. German guards leave us.
3 May Hot water up 8am. Drink of Klim and under the blankets to be called by hot water up and my God, the Yanks too. One tank and a Guf[?]. So the great day has arrived. Just a recky patrol but 180 tanks are just 4 miles back and all is quiet. No sign of Huns bar a recky plane which was smartly shot down.
11am Frank and I sitting huddled in straw, miserable looking and cold, but have had a good breakfast. Who would have thought we'd finish POW life surrounded with C parcels.
4pm On the road to march back to safety across the Isar. Discard all but a little of our gear and board trucks. Welcome by 14th Amer. Armed Div. In trucks till 4am. Couple of hours sleep in grain store and on to Moosburg.
3 May Stalag VIIA, Moosburg Moosburg Moosburg an der Isar, DE 30km southwest of Landshut, east of Freising. The former Stalag VIIA at Moosburg seems to have been used as a staging camp for evacuating liberated POWs.
Leave Moosburg for barn 4 kilos out to await turn for plane.
10 May Landshut 4km to airfield Landshut 134 Landshut, DE Marched 4km to Landshut. Aboard trucks for drome and 12am after many alarms and false starts.
11 May Airlifted from Landshut to Brussels.


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The major POW movements at the end of World War II.

The major POW movements at the end of World War II.