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Prisoners of War

VI: Relief Work

VI: Relief Work

In October 1944 the first shiploads of relief supplies and mail to go to Gothenburg had been taken on by the Lilli Mathiessen (a Swedish vessel under International Red Cross Committee supervision) to Lubeck. A second trip was made in January 1945 and the route became well established. At the same time four vessels chartered by the British Red Cross Society were transporting supplies direct from Lisbon to Marseilles. The packing of parcels continued and huge reserves were built up in the United Kingdom.1 The net effect of these arrangements was to bring forward food supplies for British Commonwealth prisoners and internees on a scale more than sufficient to restore full service to camps. The way was cleared for this by the agreement of the German authorities to the holding of reserve stocks in depots outside camps.

But whereas in the autumn of 1944 transport conditions inside Germany had again become fairly satisfactory, in January 1945 the

1 In April 1945 there were 7,500,000 to 8,000,000 in stock.

page 487 German railways could provide only about one-eighth of the rolling stock necessary to make possible an adequate distribution to camps. By February the railways could no longer be relied upon at all; and to make matters worse, about one quarter of the Allied prisoners were on the march from eastern Germany to the west. In order to get some relief to the marching columns, the International Red Cross Committee sent food by German lorries from Lubeck on 12 February and distributed it to the prisoners making their way along the northern route to Neu Brandenburg. Dumps of food were made there and in the neighbouring region, and some 20,000 food parcels were given out to Allied prisoners at a time when they were in dire need of them. Another dump was established at Luckenwalde to serve those moving on the central line of march.

The severe shortage of food in camps used as reception centres for the columns of prisoners has already been mentioned. The International Red Cross Committee arranged with SHAEF for an experimental convoy of lorries loaded with food, each lorry painted white and marked with the Red Cross emblem,1 to be driven by Red Cross drivers into Bavaria, where many of the prisoners were being sent. Such a convoy, consisting of 25 lorries provided by the Canadian and American Red Cross Societies, left Switzerland on 7 March. At the same time permission was obtained from the German authorities to move into Germany from Switzerland whole relief trains of Red Cross supplies, in order to establish quickly large dumps at suitable places. The first of these left Switzerland on 6 March and reached Moosburg 43 hours later with over 93,000 food parcels, medicines, and other relief. The state of the line, the difficulty of getting suitable coal, and the task of persuading anyone to drive the engine made the journey an eventful one for the accompanying International Red Cross official. Besides negotiating for the safe passage of the train, he had at times to set to and stoke the engine.

Meanwhile the lorries, after distributing supplies to camps and marching columns, had returned to Moosburg to reload. Four special convoys of twelve lorries, each driven by Canadian prisoners of war and accompanied by scout cars or motor cycles, left Switzerland between 12 and 18 March for southern and central Germany. A second train left for Moosburg on the 28th with 500 tons of food, and a third on 12 April; part of these supplies were taken on to Thuringia and adjacent areas which could not be reached by rail. The fleet of lorries had now reached a total of 150, of which 100 had been supplied by SHAEF, which also provided petrol and spares; and a portion of the fleet was based on Lubeck to serve the

1 See p. 462.

page 488 northern area. Further relief trains established depots at Ravensburg above Lake Constance and at Landek in Austria, where large columns of prisoners were making their way.

In this final phase of the war in Europe the need for relief supplies became greater than it had ever been, while the means of conveying and distributing them became more and more difficult. Even with the co-operation of the German High Command, it was wellnigh impossible for the representatives of the International Red Cross Committee to contact the hundreds of columns of prisoners of war on the roads and supply them, since after a while only their general lines of march were known. The best results came from the supplying of reception centres where the arrival of food undoubtedly prevented much additional sickness and misery. The International Red Cross Committee pays a tribute to the camp leaders, who kept them informed of the numbers in their camps, and by negotiations with the local German authorities obtained concessions which made distribution easier. Rapid evacuation of British and Dominion prisoners of war soon eased the problem of supply, and left the Committee free to cater for the Allied prisoners who still remained in camps and with the more permanent problem of displaced persons.