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Prisoners of War

III: Release and Evacuation of Camps in Austria

III: Release and Evacuation of Camps in Austria

Prisoner-of-war camps in Austria, which in early 1945 contained 1500-odd New Zealanders, experienced in this period many of the same discomforts and disadvantages of those in Germany proper. They suffered the same drastic food shortages until Red Cross convoys got through in late March. A New Zealander at Markt Pongau writes in early March: ‘Our German rations are down to about 1500 calories per day … and men are getting very low … dozens have started stealing, fighting and not washing or shaving.’ A month later the same man writes: ‘Everything is rosy again … as food parcels are here in plenty….’ They also saw wave after wave of Allied aircraft come over to bomb targets in southern Germany and Austria; they were sometimes in the areas where Allied bombs fell, and there were further casualties among them from this cause. Fortunately they were spared the hardships of the winter marches page 477 suffered by those in camps in eastern Germany. As the months passed and the end of the war looked near, the attitude of the German guards towards British prisoners eased. In late April they opened the gates of the special compound in which the non-working British NCOs were held at Markt Pongau. The gates were soon smashed up and in use for ‘brewing’, and the Germans ‘gave up in despair’ when they found that the men had also torn down the inter-compound fence. What one man wrote was probably true of most camps at that stage: ‘The boys are going to take a lot of holding now’.

The Germans had decided that as many British prisoners as possible should be moved from their camps in eastern Austria farther west into the Salzburg redoubt area. They were to move towards Markt Pongau or, if necessary, farther west towards Landek. On 13 April the Russian forces were in Vienna and some of the prisoners were already on the march. Towards the end of the month the sick and unfit left Stalag XVIIIA at Wolfsberg by train and nearly all the other British prisoners had already set off on foot. Those in the Arbeitskommandos to the south and east of Wolfsberg were also on the move. On 23 April a column of 400-odd from Wolfsberg arrived at Markt Pongau, and over the next few days hundreds of men poured into the camp. Some had come from as far as Graz and had been on the march for a week or two. Like those prisoners who had travelled south through Bavaria, they had been able to obtain a good deal of food from local farmers; they had found tramping across a pleasant countryside in the spring under such conditions a rather agreeable break from the routine of prisoner-of-war camp life.

Although some marching columns did not get as far as Markt Pongau, a sufficient number arrived to bring the numbers to nearly 13,000. Since the capacity of the camp was reckoned by the German authorities as four to five thousand, it needs little imagination to picture the overcrowding of sleeping accommodation and sanitary facilities. A medical officer comments that there were ‘sick men lying on the floor in every corner of the hospital’. Though Red Cross supplies were on hand they were insufficient to cope with such a mass of men for any length of time, and the food situation could soon have become serious again. On 2 May the German guards were withdrawn, though fighting was still going on in the adjacent areas where the German forces had refused to capitulate. As in most camps, plans had been made months before for such a situation and a properly organised scheme was immediately put into operation. But by 6 May it was apparent that the controlling of the cosmopolitan mass of men then in camp was becoming increasingly difficult. On that day several hundred prisoners broke out of camp page 478 and looted a German goods train. A Swiss representative who had been stationed at the camp for some time reports that order was re-established by the camp leaders without any serious incident with civilians. But it would have been unwise to have risked a repetition. A medical officer was immediately sent up to Salzburg to contact the American forces, and a party of American troops arrived the following day.

From then on the food problem at the camp was solved by distributing supplies of American army rations, and arrangements were made for the speedy evacuation of the released prisoners, of whom some 700 were New Zealanders. British liaison officers, one of them a New Zealander, were in the camp by 17 May, and on the 20th the ex-prisoners began to move by lorry to the Salzburg airfield for the flight to France and on to England. Most of our men from Markt Pongau and adjacent Arbeitskommandos seem to have reached England by the end of the month.

It had been intended in the Allied plan that all liberated prisoners of war in Austria should go south to Italy and be repatriated from there. But unforeseen difficulties in securing the release of those who fell into Russian hands made it advisable for many groups of men to make their way to the American forces, and for the latter to transport them to the nearest available airfield for immediate evacuation west. Thus the camp leader of A945GW at Selzstal, a New Zealander, heard on 8 May that Russian and United States forces were both near at hand. After the German guards had abandoned the camp he managed to contact the nearest United States forces by telephone, and was told that although Selzstal was outside the American zone his men would be looked after if he could get them through. He managed to find a railway engine and two carriages and to persuade the engine-driver and his fireman to take them along the ten miles of railway to the American lines. Once there they were moved to an airfield near Linz and flown direct to England in Flying Fortresses.

Between three and four thousand British and some 15,000 other Allied prisoners were contacted by liaison officers from Allied Force Headquarters in Italy and evacuated south. As early as 8 May parties totalling about 4000 men were making their way through the Brenner Pass, and Liberator aircraft were over camps in the Wolfsberg area dropping food and medical supplies. On that date also MI9 personnel equipped with wireless were parachuted into Wolfsberg, and the German guards handed over the camp to the senior of the newly arrived officers. In the next few days men from outlying work-camps and others who had broken loose from the march columns poured into the camp. A guard of the most page 479 responsible prisoners was put on the perimeter to prevent men getting out and causing trouble with civilians.

It took a fortnight or more before all British personnel were evacuated from Wolfsberg and the hospital at Spittal. The Klagenfurt airfield fell into the hands of Yugoslav partisans, who were reluctant at first to make it available for British and United States aircraft. But by 24 May the bulk of the released British prisoners had been flown to Bari or Naples, and, after a day or two there, had been sent on by air to England. The men from some of the Arbeitskommandos made their way direct to the airfield. In response to a Russian request, Russian prisoners were transported north to Graz to be exchanged for those from the United States and the British Commonwealth. The exchange began on 24 May, but there were delays in getting our men south to the airfield, and some who should have come south to Klagenfurt were at first still being sent east to Odessa.

By the end of May the problem of evacuating prisoners from Austria, and from other parts of Europe as well, had almost resolved itself into a search for stragglers. Some men had stayed with Austrian or German girls and their families who had been good to them, in order to do what they could to protect them from the invading Russian troops. A few who had married or engaged themselves to do so were trying to get permission to bring their fiancees or wives out with them. New Zealanders in this predicament had to await permission from Base, but the War Office early agreed to evacuate the women as well, with the idea of getting the men out more quickly and sorting out the marriage problems later. The New Zealand repatriation unit sent a detachment to Klagenfurt to speed up the repatriation of New Zealanders, and it seems that the officer in charge handled a difficult task with a great deal of tact.

Apart from the men with wives or fiancees, there were others doing useful work as interpreters and guides with occupation units. Orders from New Zealand Base Headquarters were to evacuate any New Zealander as soon as possible, no matter what the circumstances, if necessary by placing him under arrest. There was at first little attempt to estimate the value of such a man as an interpreter or guide to the occupation troops, and a tendency to impute to him the worst motives for remaining. No doubt there were a few who might want to be ‘last out and last to return to New Zealand’, or who might just be indulging their appetites. But there were others who were glad of an opportunity to justify themselves by doing useful work (which only they, from their local knowledge, could do) after years of useless inactivity in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Although 12,000 British and other Allied prisoners came out in June, there were only 500-odd in July, and the Allied Repatriation page 480 Unit was beginning to reduce its strength in preparation for final disbandment. Nine New Zealanders came out in July and four in August, and by that time there were fewer than twenty of our men still to be located in the whole of Europe. The task of tracking down the remaining missing was given to special contact teams in the various occupation areas. The disbandment of the New Zealand unit began on 1 September, when the main party moved to Taranto. Since its formation the Allied Repatriation Unit had received some 46,500 ex-prisoners, among them 1080 New Zealanders.