Norman Gibbs’ Diary
The Long March (Part 1)
‘..In early January 1945 there had been rumours that the Russian forces were rapidly approaching our area. This was made manifest when a ‘runner’ came to our group and said all personnel were to assemble at the pit cage. One German workman said he hoped that they had not been too hard on us and another wished us safe homecoming. We arrived at the pit-cage and were taken up in groups to the guards waiting for us. They had to wait while we went through the ritual of a shower, hanging the pit tackle on our allocated hook and getting dressed in uniform.
On entering the camp [E51 Klausberg] there was great activity. The top workers and day shift had already started urgent preparations for leaving. We were all in camp on Sunday when the day shift was to go back to the mine but were turned back. The top workers were sent off on their jobs. Any spare time was spent in rigging some bed-boards to make a form of sledge. With Red Cross parcel string and some nails, that had been sent to the camp cobbler, we managed fairly well. Two Red Cross food parcels were issued to each man and a half-kilo of bread. It appeared that a white Red Cross lorry had been rushing around to as many camps as possible, it being fed by more from a store.
22nd January 1945 to Gleiwitz [now Gliwice, Poland]
At dusk on the evening of Monday 22nd January we set off on our long trek. Russian artillery fire could be heard in a half circle behind us. It was very cold and after several days of snow the ground was trodden to a dangerous slippery surface. As we passed a small town not far from the pit there were many civilians who came out to watch us, many girls pulled at our sleeves and saying “Komm mit” or “Take us with you”.
Map of Silesia- Gibbs will have started at Klausberg and then headed towards Hindenberg and Gleiwitz
We arrived at a marshalling yard where more men joined us and a column of 3,500 men was rumoured to have gathered. We walked through Hindenburg and on to Gleiwitz. [My father Eric West attempted to escape at Gleiwitz but was recaptured]
The winter had been so intense that frost had penetrated deeper than ever before. At the next village a fellow who was ill (we think he had pneumonia) –died. He was South African, Private Young. He had a group of friends who had nursed him and because the ground was too hard for any burials he was put in a chapel in the churchyard. It was dawn on Tuesday when we stopped for two hours rest then on again. Men were wearing all the winter under clothes they could pile on rather than leave them in camp. We were fortunate to have our great coats.
It was dawn by now and we started walking again. The weather was extremely cold and the wind from Silesia fierce and penetrating. No garment could keep it out and it seemed to go right through you. The trek now in smaller groups of about 120 men – marched three deep at a slow pace on squelchy slush with guards on both side’s only four paces apart. At darkness we were herded into an open field still covered in snow. We were told we could rest for three hours before moving off again. How to rest was a puzzle. Most sledges had collapsed by now but a couple of bed boards would have been of great help. I think I squatted huddled up on the two opened Red Cross cardboard boxes and hoped the lower one would still be in a state to keep it in a carry able condition. When we were roused to move off again the field presented a sorry sight. Some men had frostbite, some said they could not carry on and several never woke up. We marched on again and arrived at a wide river. It was probably the River Oder with a very impressive bridge across it. The high super-structure of iron was laden with explosives. All manner of shells, bombs anything that could explode was strapped to the upper structure. Much more was probably packed underneath.
At 13.00 hrs we stopped near a large wooden barn after walking about three miles from the bridge. There was a bar and lock on the door but a guard taking an iron bar from farmyard tools soon had the bar wrenched off and we were told to go in. Up until now we had been given nothing to drink. The guards had forbidden anyone to drink snow water as they said it was polluted with animal waste, and stomach trouble would result. This lack of drink was brought to an end when some civilians offered us cups of coffee. Rather strangely the guards allowed them to do so. We all seemed to feel that we could start on our parcel food, remembering to ration ourselves most carefully. Everybody was in deep sleep that night. I recall stirring and looking across the barn at all the bodies so dead still.
Gleiwitz (now Gliwice, Poland)
During the afternoon the bridge had been sprung [explosives detonated] and we heard the explosions very loudly. We were rewarded for enduring the forced march because the fate of those left and unable to cross was sad to contemplate. It was never reported that any columns of prisoners were left behind so we were extremely fortunate to have crossed in time.
Ratisbon [now Raciborz]
It appears that we had arrived in the area of Ratisbon [on the Czech border, now Raciborz]. This is only 80 kms from our starting point but I am sure we had walked further by being taken on quiet roads far from being direct. All day Thursday we marched on till dusk when we were again found a wooden barn. This one did not have such deep loose straw and was very draughty as the wind was still fierce. On Friday we set off again but had not travelled very far when there was an air raid. Bombs fell not far away and a fighter plane swooped low over the column. Every man including guards dived into a ditch beside the road. The plane did not gun us. There was a decision made by somebody that we should turn back. We stopped again in the same draughty barn as the previous night so no progress was made.
Ratisbon, now Raciborz
On Saturday we reached Jungersdorf and slept in another barn. Sunday was a very welcome rest day. During the day there was an issue of vegetable soup. By the time we walked from the boiler to a clear space to eat, proof of the extreme cold was manifest because the edges of the soup had started to freeze.
Full marks must be given to the Germans for innovation. As used in WW1 and now again in WWII they had a means of providing hot vegetable soup when in awkward situations and certainly on the march. I had never seen anything like it being copied by the British. They had a horse drawn cart in which was hung a large boiler on gimbals making the soup fairly safe from spilling even on rough territory. Naturally the military could requisition potatoes and other vegetables on route and find fuel for the stove beneath the boiler. I can still see the meal being given to us.
The weather continued to be extremely cold and a few men made a great mistake. Our boot uppers were soaking wet when these few others learnt from them, declared their feet were sore and took their boots off at night. Sleeping with one’s feet with boots on, under straw made it possible to endure the numb feeling. Next morning those men who had removed their boots tried to get them on again. They found the uppers frozen like plywood and the leather laces so frozen brittle that they just snapped. These men simply had to get their boots on so probably suffered sore ankles until the leather softened again and used string for laces. [I remember my father Eric West telling a similar story about learning not to remove his boots- I didn’t connect this with the Long March at the time].
30th January 1945, E72 Reunion
On the 30th January we continued all day and estimated we covered about 30 kms. The shelter for that night was an evacuated spinning mill. Most of the machinery had been removed but the evidence that raw wool had been handled was the dark slippery floor that seemed to be covered in lanolin grease. The floor was hard but we slept well probably because there were no draughts. At a halt next day the fellows from the old E72 camp passed us and I was able to call to some faithful old friends. [This group may have included George Hawkins, as well as my father Eric West who had both started their Long March from E72 in 1945].
During the next day of marching I felt a pain under my heart. It was not the wind but reminded me of my father, who suffered with angina, describing his pain. A dead body through carrying plenty of kit made me make a decision to dump all I possibly could do without. Boot brushes, memos, intended presents, a minimum of clothing were thrown in a ditch hoping some Russians might find them. Reluctantly I also threw away a pair of very good shoes and hoped the army boots would serve me well until the end of the march.
I kept tucked around me the blanket of hand knitted woollen squares that had been sent in a clothing parcel. There were some civilians watching us at this halt and before any suffering Russians might find my discarded kit these people descended on it like hawks. I rearranged my remaining kit, some in the suitcase and some in a kit bag. I continued to wonder whether I had done the right thing when a fellow’s mind was not clear, his body weak and feeling a pain near the heart. I obtained two aspirins from the medical orderly who was with our column. Some hot potatoes were given out here and I slept well in our new billet. Next day I carried my suitcase by putting a stick through the handle and the stick on my shoulder I still had a little food from a food parcel in the kit bag hung on my chest. Unfortunately the handle of the suitcase broke off and more rearranging of kit was necessary. Then troubles had to be given priority and solved so I lost a few days in my diary and had not recorded where we were billeted nor the probable milage covered.
3rd February 1945 to Augezed [now Ujazd]
On Saturday 3rd February we had been issued some bread, which was now all eaten and there was very little food from our parcels left. We were told when we first set off that we should be on a five day trek. It appeared at the moment to be going on indefinitely. Later in the day we had to line up in rows of four men and an army loaf was given each row. On again, probably after a night in a barn. Sometimes we stood for a time without moving but growing very cold, while a guard was searching out a suitable barn. Although I have written we arrived at Augezed, which does not seem to be a good German word. It is seldom that a village name is left clearly on any fingerboard or sign. The walking, rather than marching, still took us on about 20 miles each day.
4th February 1945
On 4th February we rested. Some civilians gave us some potatoes that must have been cooked as we had no means of boiling them. This rest day gave us a chance to shave, with great difficulty and some agony. Possibly the village was named Nieder Wildgrabe [unlikely as this is in Germany]. In a sheltered area around the barn we were able, probably from a trough, to strip off for a wash. Although this was not a pleasant experience, our pale white bodies were refreshed.
In this area I asked a guard whether we had reached Czechoslovakia. He fiercely snapped back and said, “No, it was Sudetengau.” [Sudetenland].
5th February 1945 to Altstadt [now Gorlitz]
On Monday 5th February I have an entry that puzzles me. Since I cannot recall any detail of the event, I still wonder how we coped. There was an issue of food consisting of a tin of fish between 10 men, two hard biscuits each and a kilo of meat, most probably horseflesh. The miracle of the two barley loaves and five fishes comes powerfully to mind. The size of the tin I do not remember nor how we opened it because the useful army issue knives had been taken from us. Perhaps it was a tin of sardines with a key but that would be insultingly small between 10 men. A small group had obtained a black enamel pot in exchange for a new vest and boiled up some potatoes that were scrounged from the civilians. All this was edible food for which we were extremely grateful.
At this halt the column became smaller because several men had made a break. There were several who were sick and stayed behind and alas some Russians who appeared too weak to carry on. When I noticed this sad sight I was pleased to say that the pain under my heart had gone. When we moved off there was a long uphill trek through wonderful roads lined with fine fir trees of great age. This was obviously the summit of a high ridge because the road suddenly broke out of the forest into bright light and a view of fields in a valley below. Eight hairpin bends and a further rush to a place called Altstadt negotiated the escarpment.
Altstadt, now Gorlitz, townscape in winter
6th February 1945 to Triebitz [now Třebovice, Czech Republic]
On the 6th February we were in a cattle yard. Here we lined up 5 men to a row and were given one loaf, a piece of cheese and a block of butter – ersatz. This was for five men for three days! The weather became warmer and any remaining snow turned into a wet slush. Making our boots wet through. A fine rain fell making the trudge for 22 kms to Triebitz a very uncomfortable experience.
This was the last barn in Sudetenland and we remained here for five days. That gave rise to all sorts of rumours. A most wishful one was that we were going to another Lager [POW camp] with a chance of a Red Cross parcel of food and or some clothes. Another imagined we would be given some transport. None of these rumours materialized. Further entries in my diary have details that seem to indicate I somehow heard surreptitiously the British news. The Germans were retreating from Upper Silesia, but sending three fresh armies into position to hold the south bank of the Oder. Armies from Pomerania were driving down to Russian spearheads approaching Berlin.
I had three good comrades Spike, Bert, and Len; we helped each other through thick and thin. The column had grown again into a very large number and so was reorganized into units of 100 to assist in fixing billets and any food. Now we marched more smartly in threes. The guards asserted their authority as they kept at short and regular spaces close to us. At the next farm 150 men were pent up in cold weather but there was an issue of soup.
It was cold and slushy underfoot but we had more soup at the billet. Len proved his efficiency as a cook and was made company cook by the men. He made up some dried vegetable, potato flour, macaroni and dried biscuits. There was a large loaf between eight men and a small piece of sausage.
Friday 9th February- We were still at this farm and feeling bored as we were lying about on the straw. From time to time we went into the yard and stretched our legs, stamped our feet and moved stealthily into the cow shed. It was warmer here and we chatted for about twenty minutes before being chased out. I had received a poetry book from England ‘an Anthology of Modern Verse.’ This had been a set book at college and I very much liked it contents. As I read some of the poems I became sentimental at times and others quite homesick. I felt the war poets had written of hard and painful experiences. These lines made vivid pictures to a student but now were verbal realities to an active soldier. Other poems whose content described the beauty and calm peace of England brought back memories of happier times “Buy my English posies and I’ll tell you whence you came”.
10th February 1945
On Saturday 10th February men were getting very worried, without a clue why we were staying here for five days. It seemed that the powers in charge knew we would be staying here because of one arrangement. At most barn sites when there was reasonable cover in the nearby paddock we dug a shallow trench and fixed up a pole as a makeshift latrine. At this site it must have been known that we would be staying longer because we were given some hessian and poles. From this we had to make a more private screen and a deeper pit. During our stay civilians had offered potatoes and bread, which it was agreed must be assembled together and shared out later. What a different donation I happened to be given! As I walked into this elaborate screen a lady’s hand appeared through the joint in the hessian sheets. She pushed first one then two and three buns to me and disappeared. What buns they were, what marvelous ingredients and how well cooked with a dusting of fine sugar on top. The mystery deepens when one recalls the extreme bland monotonous food normally available. There were even small potatoes in the loaves – looking like egg in our large pork pie – but not so good. I sinfully ate one bun before taking three to the agreed collection, imagining I might not get one later on. It was obvious why this wise and clever woman passed the buns in from behind, because if she had walked out round the front to the table of offerings and a guard had noticed the excellence of them she would have been arrested possibly for hoarding.
Sunday 11th February– the men seemed to try and get washed, shaved and clothes dusted off in order to feel it was Sunday. Several men agreed with me that they felt a telepathic communication with home at nine o’clock when the news would be read out. There were rumours and guesses about this stay here but these were forgotten when at a late hour we received half a loaf, some margarine and honey. About midnight there was a ladle of soup.
Monday 12th February– men were getting agitated by the monotonous and unexplained reason for waiting here. More strange was the unique distribution of a packet of German tobacco between three men. I buried my ration deep in my kit bag. How they were to smoke this and obtain a light just did not worry me. At least our boots and socks had dried out and there was a strong rumour that we should move on tomorrow.
Tuesday 13th February– there was no movement and the half loaf from yesterday had to last us today and the next day.
14th February 1945 to Litomisl [now Litomyšl, Czech Republic]
On Wednesday 14th February there certainly was movement. At 7 am we were on parade and waiting until 8 am in pouring rain. We marched all day in the rain with boots wet through again with fresh snow turning to slush underfoot. The road took us uphill round many hairpin bends to a great height. Then an extensive view opened up and when there was a break in the rain and mist we could see a large distant plain. First we passed along a straight downhill path through a wood with concrete pylons on the side. About half way down the slope the wood ended and an enormous panorama opened up before us. It stretched far ahead to the west and sideways to the south and north. There was a huge fertile plain in the valley, with little snow left and behind it a ridge of hills well wooded and snow capped. To reach this distant scene I thought it would be about 50 km or three days march. A break in the distant clouds allowed a patch of sunlight to fall on the scene, which appeared as the lost horizon found again in Czechoslovakia!
It was only about two or three kilometres to the first village. It was small but at once there was hospitality offered but equally important was the pleasant, smiling and sympathetic faces we met. It had been a hard march but a reassuring and strengthening journey, which brought us nearer to home in distance and strengthened spirit. We ended at a small village near the town of Litomisl where the people again gave us all they possibly could. There was bread, preserves and potatoes given by farmers. Amongst so many men the share was small but welcome and we ended up in a barn that had electric light.
Litomisl, now Litomyšl, Czech Republic
15th February 1945 to Hermanice [Heřmanice, Czech Republic]
On Thursday 15th February we walked about 16 km to a state farm where the entire column was billeted. There were no rations from the Germans but voluntary gifts from the civilians of bread, fruit, apples and soup. All this was directed to the kitchen and then divided up between the companies and sections. Still at the farm it was freezing with no facilities to wash but still some gifts offered by the civilians. We ate near the village of Hermanice, where the fine type of physically striking, well dressed men constitute the police armed force.
Aerial view of Hermanice, now Heřmanice, Czech Republic
17th February 1945 to Ostretiv [Ostrov nad Ohří, Czech Republic]
On Saturday 17th February- at 7.45am we marched off on a long trek of an estimated 38 km to Ostretiv. Here we were put into a barn that became overcrowded. The British medical officer complained but nothing was done to relieve the pressure. The complaint was lessened when a liberal amount of food appeared. There was a large cartwheel loaf between three men, two or three ounces of margarine, a piece of cheese as big as a walnut, potatoes and soup. Civilians gave some soup also and a farmer some raw potatoes. Although we took raw potatoes readily there was not always a chance to boil them. This difficulty was usually overcome by a case of ingenuity arising out of necessity. Small groups of two or three men carried in turn a cooking device, which had been made earlier when we had tins from the Red Cross food parcels. At times there was the issue of a parcel from America, which was rather superior and had in it the main tin for making the stove. It was the large tin of Klim [milk spelt backwards] –of dried milk powder. This constituted the firebox. Into the side was pressed a small tin to feed in air, which was again fixed with a fan in it to create a forced draught. In this way we could burn all the material that we had picked up in farmyards such as twigs, leaves and any likely fuel. A pot of potatoes put carefully on the klim tin could be brought to the boil quite quickly and one hoped the collection of fuel would last until the potatoes were cooked. Somebody had kept a stove and brought it back to England where it was on display at the Imperial War Museum.
18th February 1945 to Chvojene [Chvojenec, Czech Republic]
On Sunday 18th February 1945 at 9.20 we were off again on a good road for about 12 kms to arrive at Chvojene. [Chvojenec is a village, near Holice].
We were crowded again in an uncomfortable barn billet and told it was punishment for three men who had made a break. There was shooting at night when some men had got out of the barn and went to the village to scrounge food. No one was killed. There was another issue of tobacco – a packet between three. I gave just a pinch more to my two friends then swapped the rest for a slice of bread. At such depressing times it is the thought of seeing our loved ones again and the fact that we are walking in the opposite direction from that of 1940 that helps to keep you determined to march on. Most men showed well how much resilience the body could stand but a few showed some weakness.
Monday 19th February- Just a gap issue as we stayed here another day. A fire was made in order to cook some potatoes but a guard kicked it out. As we left we received a slice of bread and from local farmers some coffee with milk added.
Tuesday 20th February- again a move of about 16 km to another state farm. It was crowded and difficult to find a place to sleep but an issue of food offset this very late at night. There was a loaf between three, some honey and a strange cheese spread. Local farmers gave us raw potatoes.
21st February 1945 to Cisteves [Čistěves, Czech Republic]
On Wednesday 21st February- there was good weather when we left this billet and the going was good so we marched in a more cheerful fashion for about 20 kms. This was making a southerly circuit around the town of Königgratz, [Hradec Kralove]. Signs of activity could be seen with much industry including a gas works and electrical power station. There was a system of straight roads leading out to other large towns. Here we passed another column made up of civilian refugees and forced labourers. The many rumours that were spread about saying we should have a parcel here or a delouse on transport were all false because we left Königgratz to a village, Cisteves and locked up in a barn straight away.
Thursday 22nd February- we continued to remain in this barn with restricted room and poor facilities. There was an orchard at the back of the barn where the whole of the men were told to parade. There they made us up into two commandos; one of 200 men and one of 240. I went with the E51 group of 200 mean. The aim was to be able to find smaller barns as billets and the better chances of finding a cooking stove. That night we had a loaf between three some margarine and cheese.
Unfortunately there are no entries in my diary from now until the Friday March 2nd. I can recall much of what happened after making an almost fatal mistake. We had moved on to a billet, which was a barn that had deep loose straw in it. Because we seemed to be well into friendly Czechoslavakia, the mad notion of trying to escape came to my mind. I suggested to Bert that we had a good chance here to get under the straw and later leave with hope of help from the civilians. Bert agreed so we told Spike and asked him to carry our few possessions. If we never met up again he could give these ‘effects’ to any C.O. who would see that they were returned to the War Office. This was sheer madness because for any escape to have a fair chance of success it must be well planned with hope of future contact. We just buried ourselves under the straw as the others were leaving. There was a formal parade outside and a count made so we were known to be missing. After a while the column set off and a few guards were left to search the barn. They appeared to think we could not have got away during the night. The guards were searching high up in rafters; we could hear the clatter of them climbing about. When they gave up looking they stood in a group cursing and dusting themselves down. They had their bayonets fixed and to stand their rifles up during the dusting down they prodded the bayonet into the straw. Our luck held good until one rifle fell over and the guard dug it in again with greater angry force and just nicked Bert’s calf. Bert did not make a sound but must have made a small twitch and the guard saw the slight movement of straw. With rapid energy they had us out and chased into the yard. They sent for the local dog handler, probably Czech who arrived with an Alsatian and was told to set the dog on me. It only played with my good coat when it seems the guards expected it would tear a piece out of my leg or arm. The playfulness was probably due to the way the command was given. The handler was told to take this useless dog away. The usual horse and cart that trailed with guards’ kit behind a column was still there. The decision was for them to get into the cart and make us walk on behind with our hands on the top edge of the tailboard. We walked on in this way until the cart was turned up into a narrow, quiet lane. Here the guards took two trenching tools out of the cart pushed us for several feet into the open field and said we were to start digging two trenches. Of course we had to get started and my mind told me that I had made a great mistake. I apologized to Bert who said nothing but kept hacking. I tried to console myself by thinking that I was a soldier, there was a war on and this was my lot. That the only person to worry would be my mother who was anxiously awaiting my return home. This low state of affairs was worsened when one guard said quietly but clearly – much easier to understand than when they raved that he had no rounds left. The other said that he was not to worry because a few centimetres of steel in the right place would do.
As the situation deteriorated I said nothing to Bert. Then I thought that if it were true that one guard certainly had no ammo we should try to make a break. With hesitating pauses I outlined to Bert that in this way we would compel them to shoot – better than a bayonet – or we could make for the cover of some bushes on the other side of the road, about twenty paces away. This next move was settled and I felt one degree brighter. The word ‘miracle’ can be used rarely and with reverence. The guards looked towards the road and then we stopped and looked up as well. An open staff car had arrived and had to stop because the horse and cart blocked the narrow lane. There was an army officer with his driver and the batman in the rear seat. I forgot completely about our predicament to analyse with curiosity why should an officer be turning up this lane. I conjectured that he was a smart man going towards the sunset or west and hoped to get to the area where he most likely to be in the hands of British or American forces. The office got out of the car and called to the guards who went to him. There was a short “parley” when I could sense that this knowing officer must be giving some advice. This could have been to say they were not doing very well, that one cannot shoot an unarmed prisoner, because if they were later identified they themselves could be classed as war criminals. The outcome of this was for the one guard to move the cart up out of the way and the other guard to take our trenching tools, throw them up in the cart, tell us to hold on to the tailboard again while the cart had moved on. We walked on some kilometres until a barn was seen with prisoners in it. Before being put in the barn the two guards took us to a shed where there was a light, and were obviously not satisfied with our amount of punishment to match the inconvenience the delay had caused them. So they ‘duffed’ us up. I had one rifle butt to the stomach while the other guard had taken a pitchfork, tucked the prongs under his arm and brought the shaft down on my head. As I saw it coming I put my forearm across my head and thought the blow had broken my arm. He tried again but this time my arm would not respond quickly enough and I received a sound blow. I had a tender area for some time. Let into the barn we found a space and lay down exhausted. Next day feeling stiff we came across Spike who was pleased to see us and able to give us back our few possessions. The days followed the same monotonous routine of marching and resting in barns.
Although I did not write my diary for about ten days I noted some village names. Junburgiau, Banakak, Schlan and a town which could easily be identified as we walked past the Bata Shoe factory [now Zlin] with the name ‘Bata’ in six foot high letters on its façade.
Bata shoe factory (now an apartment block), Zlin, Czech Republic
2nd March 1945, to Rudec
By Friday 2nd March I had kept a few more details by noting that we walked on a long straight road and crossed the River Elbe [now the Labe] about 22 kms north of Prague [the river crossing at the village of Rudec is the most likely site]. We kept moving along side the river and noticed a large flooded area to the north on our right and ended up in a large barn with no facilities. The civilians gave us some bread and soup, which was distributed in an orderly fashion after there had been some rushing. Next day we ended up in a large barn and thought we could get washed and tidied up here but for some reason we were chased out and moved on to another barn 10 kms further away. Life must have been a boring repetition for a few more days as the next entry is for Thursday 8th March showing we must have reached Risüty the day before.
8th March 1945, to Řisuty, Czech Republic
We left Risüty at 8.20 am and walked along a road which was as straight as a billiard cue and which brought us to the small village of Graupenkrupa [now Krupa]. There was a level crossing and a station here. We must have been moved on to an obviously unsatisfactory barn. Behind it there was a small area that was defined by paper, string and tufts of straw and where we could use a latrine. Cooks brought soup and coffee to the back door and I had a bed up in the loft. There were some potatoes given by the farmers and three men had dental aid. I had an annoying turn of piles and could get no aid other than resting and trying to use my bowels regularly. This incident makes me recall having the same trouble about four years ago when we were in the beer garden. The middle-aged guards had been calm and helpful then. For example they warned the early shift to go carefully down the outside steps because of black ice. When one of the guards heard me say I had piles he went into a chemist in Beuthen town – surely while out walking for his own shopping – and brought me a small quantity in a sweet bag of ‘heu’. This was some finely chopped hay with signs of other herbs. He told me to make an infusion and bathe myself. Remarkably it soothed then cured, but there was no such good fortune here.
Friday 9th March. We rested here this day and there was a chance for the cook to show off. They had macaroni that was cooked and sweetened, honey most likely, as our soup. There was a loaf to share, honey and a small piece of sausage. The civilians had given some soup, which was a lucky bonus for the few.
Saturday 10th March. We rested yet again which gave us the chance to do any repairs, sew on buttons or darn socks. From the kitchen we had a boiler of hot water to wash ourselves and shave. At the end I was able to wash my shirt and pants, which was dried by civilian help. I felt much more comfortable after a change of clothes and a wash. I slept well again in the loft and the rest had prepared us for further marching.
11th March 1945, to Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
Up and away on Sunday 11th March. Before leaving I was up early and in the yard putting some fat on my boots when a smart looking lady gave me some buns and some bread. This was more than my share at earlier share-outs! We halted about 10 kms along a straight road at Karlsbad [now Karlovy Vary] and soon afterwards turned into a state farm Horosedl where it was very muddy. It was a depressing place as there were now three columns in the billet. Our hopes rose when we heard there was a rumour that some food parcels had been stored here. This proved to be true and the issue contained French, American, Canadian and Belgian cartons. I am vague about how much each man received. It seems improbable to have had a parcel for each man, which means a great deal of sharing out was necessary. At any rate it was some extra food and smokers were well satisfied when there was an issue of 82 cigarettes per man. We rested here for another day and were given 375 gms bread which meant that the Red Cross food was immediately being eaten. With a great effort and difficulty I managed to get washed and shaved to feel ready for the next march.
Karlsbad, now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic
Tuesday 13th March 1945 to Lubebec, Czech Republic
The marching this day was probably uneventful as I noted quite simply on Tuesday 13th March that we had marched 22 kms to Lubenz [now Lubenec].
1940s postcard of Lubenz, now Lubenec, Czech Republic
Wednesday 14th March, again I made no entry other than that we seemed to be about 8 kms south of Karlsbad [now Karlovy Vary- at this point Gibbs may have been marched in a circle, as this village had also been reached on 11th March].
I cannot account for the reason that there were days with little or no comment. Perhaps there was no opportunity during the daylight and then there was usually complete darkness in the barns.
Thursday 15th March, I met a fellow who also kept a diary. His chief interest was to keep the mileage and as many place names as was possible. I was more of an introvert and noted scenery, people and fellow men’s reactions. He had calculated a figure of 557 kms and shares in 35 loaves. We continued to walk until we came to a small village off the main road and arrived at a barn that seemed to be run by women. Details of the life in this camp are missing again which points to monotony and probably self-preservation. The name of the village was not completed on a signboard but had that part which read ‘Nieder’ meaning ‘Lower’ somewhere.
Saturday 17th March 1945 to Marianske Lazne, Czech Republic
Another day’s detail was missing but on Saturday 17th March life became more interesting. We climbed all day through the picture postcard country around Marienbad [now the spa town of Marianske Lazne] then on through wooded slopes where pine trees hung like a green curtain around us. This led us to a rushing stream and railway line up a valley to Einsiedl. We estimated that we had marched about 28 kms and I was probably rather tired and have not commented on the billet.
Aerial view of Marienbad (now Marianske Lazne, Czech Republic)
Sunday 18th March- It was very cold when we lined up next morning and had the lists checked. We stood for a long time in bitterly cold weather and an air of mystery hung over the column as we moved off. The reason became clear when we stopped and found our existing guards bearing the number 6/398 were replaced by those with number 2/398. At last we stopped at Martinov, very tired and receiving our first bread for three days. There was no soup nor coffee but some hot water was provided. We turned away from a road that led to Pilsen. Probably it was because I was tired and hungry that again I made no comment on the billet but just slept.
Monday 19th March 1945 to Přimda, Czech Republic
We moved off as a new column and reorganized yet again on route. We were moving South-west towards the Bavarian border. Three hundred men were crowded into a barn here where men were very tired and weak again having no food but some soup the next morning.
Tuesday 20th March– We left this village and walked through Haid and onto Pfrauemberg [now Přimda]. It was a very hard climb but we were rewarded by a very extensive view from the top. Half the columns were billeted here and we marched on to Katherina, a further 6 kms. Of course we thought this would make life easier for us but alas we moved into a large barn with other men crowding in 300 strong again. All day there had been nothing to drink; no soup at night but 8 men to a loaf was issued. The next day we remained in the billet, which was a welcome rest as we had marched about 120 kms during the past five days. Some of us had been carrying dried peas and beans, which we managed to cook here. There was an issue of soup but our tummies rumbled and we were itching well. This billet was on the road to Nurnberg and we were 9 kms from the Bavarian border.
Thursday 22nd March– It was a pleasant and steady march to Waidhaus. We had heard of two large white trucks [Red Cross] that had travelled out from Geneva to deliver parcels at various farms. This seemed to be a ‘dodge’ until two Dodge trucks pulled up beside the column and a captain spoke to a driver. It appears that some parcels were stored about 2 kms from here, and we were still trying to get them late at night. There was no parcel and there were no rations. Bert had developed a temperature and chill through standing for a long time in a very cold wind after sweating on the march. Again there was speculation and rumours about the parcels; hard to forget when one is hungry. The evening atmosphere was brightened up when a few musicians who had bravely carried their instrument played some tunes.
Palm Sunday 25th March– the day temperature had gone up and as we rested here men could strip off and have a good wash. There was much repair work going on to clothing with the hope that we should get a change of clothing soon. Bert’s temperature was still high and he had developed tonsillitis. It was good fortune for him that we were still resting but the only help we could get him was some pills. Some signs indicated that food in general was getting short and we were wondering again about our future when allied planes flew over and did a victory roll over us. Some soup was issued to bring cheer to the end of the day.
Monday 26th March– The procedure was quite different from the usual food issue. We were given three days rations all at one time. These were potatoes, macaroni and lentils with about 700 gms of bread, some salt and sugar. The men kept themselves and the farmyard tidy with the idea that any inspection by a German Captain might influence him if a food parcel was to be made available. There was constant noise of planes and the sound of bombing. The scene was like a western film because there was the old barn behind, with a pond in front and many little fires going. There seemed to be no objection to this effort to cook the issue of dry rations as many black billycans were steaming. The weather was fine and dry and Bert was feeling a little better. Naturally as a sick man he said he would like something more appetizing to eat, but in no way could we help him. The men now seemed less preoccupied with the marching but rather in wishing the time away at these signs of war activity and repeated ‘Roll on the boat’. I saw a brown butterfly, the bees were busy as were the mosquitoes and there were many other flies on the dung-heap.
Tuesday 27th March– there was still no movement again today. The men were getting restless and hungry but the situation eased when there was an issue of potatoes probably cooked in a kitchen. The weather turned dull and cold so there were more men in the barn than outside.
Wednesday 28th March– it was dull and fine rain fell as it was announced that we were staying yet another day. Food was the main topic of conversation but also a common hoping for an early release. The Captain of the column came to the barn to say a few words. He spoke with the feeling that the march could be finished, as the area around had been heavily bombed. He expected the men to share the shortage of rations and billeting difficulties with the civilians. This would make the working and conditions on the column more difficult, but the men were to maintain a soldierly bearing. Of course at the end of the lecture men were mumbling something about how easy it would be if only there was a food parcel that could appear from a base.
Thursday 29th March- there was an issue of a loaf between 5 men for two days or 210 grams per man per day. Some potatoes must have been cooked for us as no fires were allowed now. The weather was dull and cold so the men spent most of the time on their backs in the straw. It was Maundy Thursday and in this Roman Catholic country the day was observed very religiously. Some young lads performed an old custom of coming to the threshold of the farmstead and kneeling on a clapper to beat away the evil spirits by turning a handle. This went on at each farmstead morning, noon and night. It may seem boring to read yet again that men talked only of food and the hope of a parcel.
Friday 30th March– Good Friday is observed in a most holy way here. No farm work is done and once again the boys did their round on the clappers. Once they used bells but wartime restrictions stopped it. Once again there was an announcement that parcels were being distributed in the area and we might get one at 7 a.m. today from Weiden. At mid-afternoon the scouts were out watching for a cart, which might be carrying relief for the stomach and also for the tense nerves much time and patience was now being lost in the procedure of the de-lousing. It had been a cold job these last few days. The rumour was correct. At 4 p.m parcels did arrive. Four men were to share 1 Canadian and 1 American parcel and there were 50 cigarettes each. There was of course a brighter atmosphere in the barn and much excited chatter.
Saturday 31st March– Peas and potatoes were issued by the Germans for us to make soup. Ten men shared one loaf and a statement that rations would be given for the day. Fires were allowed again and the men made use of the peas and potatoes to help make a meal.
Saturday 31st March– the rations issued by the Germans was again by the day and as before just peas and potatoes to make our own soup, and a loaf between 10 men. Fires were allowed again and the men got cracking by adding something from the parcel to make a reasonable meal. The farmer wanted a woodworking job done, so with Jimmy and Frank who had worked in the carpenters’ shop we set about the work. There was adequate timber to put up a lean-to roof to shoot the water off a store of logs. We were given some food but I thoroughly enjoyed getting my hands on some tools again. Although the men could walk about the farmyard and had something to eat there was an air of uneasiness around the barn, which I felt was due to the long, indeterminate stay..’