Norman Gibbs participated in the 2011 BBC documentary series ‘The Long March to Freedom’. This is a still from the video recording.
Buchbach, Bavaria 2nd May 1945
‘..The mayor of Buchbach had declared it was an ‘open town’ as the SS had left two days earlier. It was now Wednesday 2nd May and we were to be on parade in the square by 8 a.m. Apparently, some transport was expected for us but as no transport trucks had arrived. An officer dismissed the men who were to return to billets and stand by for possible leaving. The day wore on and the only movement was the passing of tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery through Buchbach towards Ampfling. Lorries loaded with Germans were going back towards the west. There was transport for us and we could wander freely. I walked leisurely along a road out from the town when a marching column of about 100 Germans was coming towards me led by an officer carrying a white flag. I walked beside the officer and said I could direct him to the town square. That was what I did and we met with an American officer. “Oh, no, no, sir, I did not capture them single-handed”. We continued to obtain food rations, cigarettes and candy from the Americans who had enough to spare. It had been the first day of freedom and we returned to our billets and slept soundly.
Thursday 3rd May- To help out the Americans we three were detailed to do a guard duty for 12 hours. We had to watch our old guards and many prisoners who had been brought in from local areas. They numbered about 300; overnight and possibly a further 300 came later. We watched over them after they had been searched and herded into a barn and farmyard while being fed with boiled potatoes, coffee and bread. The civvies had raided the guards’ wagons and offered them stores from their own kit bags. There had been only one complaint and that was from a man who said his bank book and driving licence had been taken away. They were not inconvenienced for long, because lorries appeared and they were taken away. A few of our men were fortunate enough to be taken to a marshalling yard in Moosberg. The prisoners were allowed to keep their great coat, blanket and small kit. Those who were still waiting soon learnt to adjust their kit so that very little was taken from them. Now we thought that once more we could get transport, but not so, because even more Germans were arriving. I had wandered quite a few kilometres asking at farms for eggs. With no luck, I jumped on to a wagon and went past the sawmill and onto a further village, which was the billet for Americans. I received a meal from the Mess Sergeant and waited for the chance of a lift back to Buchbach. When at last I jumped on a jeep I found it was going to a village but not Buchbach. There a lieutenant welcomed me and offered some White Horse Whiskey and a bed saying he forbade me to go on as the SS and the woods had not been cleaned up. I was up at five and waited till 8 a.m. for a jeep that was going to Buchbach. In the evening there was roast chicken – obviously Bert and Spike had had a good days hunting! It was only with great care I kept three eggs in my jacket pocket from breaking, as a ride on a jeep is better than a fair ground ride. They are built for two, so that clinging on at the back and travelling over rough ground churned up by tanks is a bouncy experience.
We had picked a billet with a good ‘Hausfrau’ and enjoyed the prepared meal. On instructions we ate moderately because after months of poor rationing our stomachs needed to be nursed. The remaining food we offered to the family. At first they showed reluctance and doubt about accepting. I felt there was an aspect of their late regime that made them hesitate. When I said that they were to regard the food as a gift from us, they relaxed and eventually enjoyed a rare meal. Later we heard that we would be leaving next day.
Saturday came and a parade was ordered but not to say that we were leaving. We were to form groups of 10 men and receive rations supplied by the Bürgermeister. Time slipped by. We were free to roam still impressed by the fact that there was no barbed wire or guard in sight. I tried the door of the Church in the square and finding it open I ventured inside. As a member of the Church of England I found this Roman Catholic interior very ornate. Every aspect was interesting and detailed with plenty of light throughout.
Sunday 6th May- was my father’s birthday. I had thought much about home and at nine o’clock in the evening the telepathy between us was very strong. Every man was aching to get home again but agreed that now we had our freedom, good food and some comfortable billets, our waiting for transport was quite tolerable. By the afternoon we were told that an order from the military government had announced that all P.O.W’s were to remain in their quarters and not attempt to make their own way home. The reason given was that it was meant to avoid congestion. Further rations of milk, sugar, salt, bread, eggs, butter and potatoes were given to us from the Burgermeister. It was wonderful to realize what was available once it was released.
Monday 7th May- brought talk of peace, capitulation and reports of fast forward rushes by the Allied Forces. Still German prisoners were passing through by transport to keep them out of the way. We found the countryside around Buchbach was quite beautiful as we walked to farms for fresh milk, as it was no longer being distributed. On such a saunter we came across a stable where there was a horse and the German kit cart it had pulled. We told a farmer to take the horse and look after it while we raided the cart, taking anything useful and any clean clothes we could wear in order to dump the lice. Then women followed and took everything else.
Tuesday 8th May- was a very wonderful day. Rumours were strong that an armistice would be arranged. The electric power was restored after being destroyed by the S.S in retreat at Mühldorf. People were gathered round their wireless sets in anticipation of longed-for news. We heard from them that there would be news from England during the afternoon. The Americans were very generous and let us tune their sets to London. At 2 p.m. Mr Churchill spoke and H.M. The King at 9 p.m. We were able to hear these dramatic speeches including a statement that a cease-fire would be enforced at midnight.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
The German population was relieved and cursed the S.S for still fighting after midnight. A large German bomber and a chaser plane flew over the village and dropped down nearby where two German officers and two women were captured. They were said to have come from the Russian front in order to be taken by the Allies! It was the end of the war in Europe and the celebrations in London could be heard on the radio. Naturally we all wished we were there but thanked God we were alive and well with every good chance of an early return to England.
Wednesday 9th May- I spent in a dream like mood letting it soak into my mind that at last there was peace in Europe. I rested in the shade of some hawthorn bushes and lines of poems about ‘peace under an English heaven’ came drifting to mind. This made me wonder when and how would we be allowed to leave Buchbach. Most men, like myself, stayed indoors during the afternoon, as the weather had turned incredibly hot.
Thursday 10th May – was Ascension Day. The whole of the village, which was now liberated from Nazism, appears to be moving freely and as on many occasions before the war their church was full much of the day. ‘Heil Hitler’ as a greeting was now a term of the past and immediately the greeting was ‘Grüss Gott’. This always was the case with the dissenting miners back at E72 Beuthen of their local call of “Glück auf” meaning ‘safe return’ as a way of avoiding the National greeting.
It was exhaustingly hot again and food did not seem to be so much sought after. Our men kept all radios they could control tuned to London and ‘God Save the King‘ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory‘ was heard constantly through the open windows. This morning a French detachment marched about 5 kms away to Dorfen where they said a station had trains running into France. We had been told to stand by with kit packed but still had no news of leaving. The civilians had not put their food supplies in satisfactory order and so had bread, milk, potatoes and whatever they could get from neighbourly farmers. We found getting enough to drink was difficult.
We discovered and open-air swimming pool in the morning. After getting our food rations we returned in the afternoon to swim and sun bathe. Although it was very pleasant we found we were soon out of breath because we were not fit and felt the cold quicker than usual. There was a chance to talk to Americans on various topics and I met one later who had been to Harvard and was writing a book on his battalion’s activities. He gave me a summary of the journey from embarkation to Marseilles, through the Vosges to Siegfried, up to maritime Alps and then to Nuremberg and down to Munich. T he full account promised to be very interesting. I met him again when he had his hand bandaged. I asked him what had happened and he replied that he left a round in his revolver and when cleaning it, shot through his thumb.
Before we left the village we heard from the Americans that a cottage in a field just outside had occupants who had fired at them. We saw this place and the Americans used a loudhailer to tell whoever was there to give themselves up as prisoners, adding that they would be well treated. There was no reply so again they called, in German that they were to surrender in 24 hours or the cottage would be blown up. It was thought that there were stubborn S.S. men there. No reply or surrender was made and the cottage was blown up.
Friday 11th May- the diary seems to become slow and monotonous, that reflects correctly the anxious inactivity of the men. Again the Americans who said that the marshalling camps were overcrowded with mixed nationals; poor facilities and lice countered talk of leaving. It appeared more desirable to stay in the village. We went swimming again and later received some rations from the Burgesmeister, Americans and from farmers. There was no need to go scrounging around and patience appeared to be the virtue that we needed.
Saturday 12th May- It was extremely hot when we received an order to pack and stand-by. We packed away also the essentials from an American 10 to 1 ration box, which we had given us the night before. With a pack and a food bag we went on parade in the square. Perspiring freely we stood for nearly an hour until three six-wheeled American trucks arrived. It was 16.00hrs when we left Buchbach. It was a dusty, fast and winding road that lead us the Landshut airfield. We passed wrecked German convoys, guns, bridges down and towns hit as we arrived at the airfield to see several hundred French and British P.O.W’s congregated.
We were to be flown to France if more planes arrived. Sixteen planes landed very soon and we had a powder de-louse. This consisted of a blast of pyrethrum up the trouser legs from the ankles as far as it would go. There was much delay by our having to prove identity, complete registration forms and make a complement load. The great development in motor lorries and planes was noticeable as we waited eagerly for our turn to leave. This procedure had taken quite half an hour, but the French who had been documented before us were loaded on to the planes first. It was now 20.00hrs and the sun was setting behind a ridge of hills. The flood plain on which the airfield had been established became dark quite quickly but we still waited in hope when we heard that planes had left as late as 23.00 hrs. By midnight there were no planes in sight so I expected to spend a night under the stars. There was a large cardboard box lying nearby so I took it to make a groundsheet and cover up with a great coat. There was no need for this ingenuity because an American sergeant came to us and told us we could go to a vacated American barracks on the far side of the field for a nights rest. We made a brew of cocoa, we three, and slept till 06.00 hrs.
Sunday 13th May- A bright morning with heavy dew on the airfield and both French and British were at stand by all awaiting anxiously the arrival of planes. At 8 a.m. there was news that planes would arrive at 9 a.m. Many planes arrived on time and we were put on the fourth to leave. The planes were twin-engine monoplanes and were Dakotas, I believed but ours was not harsh military fashion but had luxury seats.
British and New Zealand POWs assembled by a waiting Dakota. Courtesy IWM
According to the pilot we passed Stuttgart to the South, and flew over Pforzheim, which appeared to have been badly damaged. Looking down on the Rhine it was clear that bridges had been blown. We had been travelling at 165 m.p.h at 3,300 ft and put down at Paris Le Bourget at 12.30 noon. In my diary I extolled the great advance in technology and design while we were shut away. The instrument panel with robot flying aids all seemed so wonderful. We passed a very simple spotter plane, looked down on some densely wooded country, many village farmsteads, over Autobahns and flyovers. Next came the Seine and railway lines leading to Paris, which looked like a large spread out city around the Eiffel Tower.
We alighted from the plane and were then taken by waiting coaches to a warm reception that had been laid on. The men made for the waiting rooms where there were coffee and cream pastries. All this generous treatment emphasised the fact that we were back in the territory of successful Allies. Coaches then took us into Paris and, via La Rue Lafayette, to a hotel situated between Metro stations Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est. We had to register here and then after a shower were given an American rigout and changed as much clothing as possible, dumping the old clothes and hopefully any remaining lice and eggs. The large hotel appeared to have been taken over simply for, living space. There was an issue of small kit candy and cigarettes, then we were shown to our beds.
We were told to go by metro, which was free, to Strasbourg St Denis for a dinner. It was a tasty and ample meal but above all it was ready served under clean and civilized conditions. We were allowed a debt of about 70 Francs and could walk around feeling freedom had really come especially as the young girls were dancing in the highways and wearing anything that helped to show red, white and blue.
I travelled by metro to L’Etoile and on to L’Arc de Triumphe. The eternal flame was burning and the five flags of allied nations were blowing out from the wind passing through L’Arc to the Champs Elysees. From there I walked to the Eiffel Tower and realized its immense size compared with pictures of it and passed the National Theatre and museum on the way. There was little damage around the centre with greater damage to the suburbs and Le Bourget from air attacks.
We returned to the George V hotel at Barbès and watched a film. It showed the signing of papers by various powers and the capitulation of Germany. There were shots of Nazi activities, murders and atrocities. Then the damage to Berlin was shown and how much greater this was compared to the blitz on London and the V1 and V2 destructive effort. There followed the execution of the two French collaborators (hanging by his heels from a bough was an effigy of Mussolini). Films like this were providing documentary evidence seen in a large store window which would be startlingly important in the future.
I bought a menthe vert and walked out into the streets. It was such a joy to walk freely in the warm, scented air of the boulevards where everybody was still singing and dancing after being locked in for 5 years behind barbed wire.
It was Mothers’ day and I sat apart for a while thinking of home. No doubt life was equally bright with many celebration going on in London and we all hoped that we should be back in Blighty in a few days time.
Monday 14th May- we were roused by loudspeaker. T he billet was clean, the washing facilities were adequate and the men in a good humour to start the day. Coaches again took us to Hotel Marguery in Rue Bonne Nouvelle where we had a good breakfast. There was another form filling session about ourselves and prison life bringing dinnertime round and a coach ride for a good dinner.
In the afternoon I went to Notre Dame Cathedral where I could only enjoy looking at the fine building from the outside, where many people were gathered, because the doors were locked. Here I also realized I had lost the fine gold chain, through changing into many different pairs of trousers, which my mother had given me as a keepsake on leaving England. Very upsetting; at the time I was in Afrika corps trousers.
There was a call to stand by at 20.45 hours to be ready to leave the hotel by 21.00 hrs. Coaches were ready to take us to Gare de l’Est where we went by train to an American ambulance train. Stretcher beds made excellent accommodation and we slept well while travelling.
Tuesday 15th May- The journey seemed to be in a circuitous route until we touched the Seine above Rouen and on into Le Havre. Here some transport trucks took us on to the top of the cliffs to an American airfield. There were some cottage tents ready, taking eight men, with camp beds and warm woollen blankets. The camp was clean, had good cooking arrangements and each man had to rinse then sterilize the plate and ‘snacking irons’ (snacking irons are knives and forks) in very hot water as each left the dining space. The food was delightful and there was plenty of it. A fire in the tent during a cold and dewy night that followed a hot, clear day brought sound sleep. There had been no air activity and so we were told one boat or a fleet of planes would clear the camp during the next day.
Wednesday 16th May- we were given a good breakfast, shredded wheat, tinned fruit, scrambled egg and white bread. Planes were arriving and leaving in rapid rotation. Since our turn had not come by dinnertime there was a hot meal again with three vegetables and meat followed by tea tinned peaches and more white bread. Germans were employed to clean and keep the campsite tidy, erecting more tents and putting down metal duckboards.
We left in an R.A.F. twin-engine plane, probably a Dakota and arrived in less than an hour over England! I saw with beating heart, as the cloud over the channel cleared first Worthing then the old camping ground of my youth near Amberley. There was radio direction into Dunsfold airfield. There we had an afternoon cup of tea, ten cigarettes and a newspaper given out to us by a young lady, and every man was astonished to hear her voice; the first female British voice for well over 5 years. That was a very warm welcome in the hangar but we had to move on.
The journey was by army trucks to a reception camp near Horsham. There we were allocated a bed in a Nissen hut, and after a long wait had a cursory medical examination. After a shower there was a new kit and uniform issued which made me feel like a new recruit again. We had been given a meal on arrival, which was many times better than those we had had before leaving England. There was ‘bully beef’ egg and potatoes, then bread and butter with jam and tea, but somehow this fell short of the American standards. I managed to send a telegram home during the evening saying, ‘Arrived safely, and coming home soon’.
Thursday 17th May- There was porridge followed by two rashers of bacon, bread and butter and a good brew of tea. Then followed a pay parade when we could exchange any remaining foreign currency and we were each given £11 cash. How this amount was arrived at I could not discover, but guessed it would be deducted in our AB64 Pay Book. A routine was being worked through as we were next sent to a medical room for an X-ray of the chest mainly for tuberculosis assessment. This was followed by a free gift from the Red Cross in a bag containing cigarettes, chocolate and new small kit of razor, toothbrush and soap. There was a six-week issue of N.A.A.F.I. benefits and a form for medal claim. This last had little effect because I claimed under pressure, sixty-five years later for two [in 2010].
There was still some further routine when we were given an electoral claim nominating a representative for voting day proxy. There was a good dinner and tea. The YMCA provided free evening tea and biscuits. An ENSA show was to be given at night, but I preferred to walk in the wood behind the camp and start enjoying again the natural life which Sussex could offer. I returned to the camp and slept well.
Friday 18th May- After a shower and breakfast we packed up and went out to wait on the road. Some coaches, which were sparsely loaded, meant the journey to Horsham station was very comfortable. An electric train had a special through route to Victoria where there were many good wishes to old friends as they made their separate ways home. I said a fond farewell to Spike and Bert who were going to Clapham. I made my way over to London Bridge for a train to West Wickham. T here were signs of hits to be seen but nothing as bad as I expected after such exaggerations by German reports. First were the many chimney pots running level with the raised railway line and then the open spaces of the sports grounds beyond the Catford suburb. Sights, sounds and the direction I was going flowed back into my mind so that I felt rather dizzy and my sight blurred.
During the blitz on London my parents had moved out to West Wickham and I was then going through seldom-used stations on from Catford. When I got out at West Wickham I felt very conspicuous like a new recruit wearing a new uniform and carrying a clean white kit bag with my army number stencilled on it.
I walked to the old tree outside the Swan Hotel and then was advised to get a bus to the cross roads at the bottom of Corkscrew Hill. There, a postman put my kit bag on his front carrier and pushed the cycle up Layhams Road. I left him at Chestnut Avenue where I thanked him and said he had been a great help, as I was still feeling weak after P.O.W. life. Quite brightly he said he was sure he had been delivering my censored cards to number 49.
I knocked on the door and there was an extra commotion inside as relations had taken to watch in turn for me to arrive in the opposite direction! It was wonderful to meet my parents and many friends and relations who had gathered and waited to give a warm reception. We had a reunion meal followed by plenty of chat. I was tired and went to sleep in a real and luxurious bed in a room with a view of open spaces and plenty of fresh air.
Saturday 19th May- cousin Roy Stacey arrived wearing his Military Medal ribbon. He had distinguished himself in action before the capture of Caen and was decorated in the field by General Montgomery. We went for a walk around Coney Hall, the new estate, telling yarns all the time. I phoned Nick Carter, the sister of my greatest friend Jack from college days and much motorcycling together, to hear any news of him as he was coming up through Italy.
My brother Frank had arrived home after working in the Cornish tin mines as a Bevan boy. We dined well on bacon, egg and tomatoes that for so long I had promised myself.
Sunday 20th May- and we went to church. The building was built with flints, had nearly a thousand years of history, there was a Roman Villa – not yet excavated – next to it. I had seen it before, but not to notice, as I panted by painfully in the college cross-country run.
I did not know at the time that this would be our local church for the next fifty – five years and also where I should be married. We ate a full Sunday dinner of roast chicken, roast potatoes and trimmings, something a prisoner dreams of. After a short rest my brother and I walked five miles to Sanderstead where we received a warm welcome from Nick and Jack’s parents to learn more about his army life while I was in Germany. Five miles back later on was such a pleasant walk, more easily made than such mileage in Germany.
Off to sound sleep again knowing the next day would need plenty of energy to get through it..’