Norman Gibbs’ Diary- The Long March Part 2
1st April 1945
‘…It was Sunday April 1st, Easter Day. Bert, who had been up for about two hours, was sick again so we found the English Medical Officer who was with the column. He took Bert to a stall that was being used as a sick bay. Another group went past us also on their way to the sick bay and I saw Gwill Roberts who was with us in the Beer garden (and had matriculated in the Welsh language) obviously sick as well. The cooks were able to heat up water and when it boiled men made a cup of tea from the 2 oz packet in some parcels. Apparently there were some non-food articles left with the parcels that were offered today.
Men were washing either themselves or clothes when 7 tins of Wrens boot polish, 4 blocks of shaving soap and 75 Gillette razor blades arrived. The men looked smarter after a wash, shave and polished boots. Here the people offered each other coloured hens eggs as an Easter token. Late in the day some rations did arrive including some cabbage soup. The rule about rations for only one day was broken when we had 840 gms of bread for three days and 30 gms of margarine after a lapse since March 9th.
Monday 2nd April- The clocks had been put forwards an hour and it seemed midday by the time one was up and dressed. It was wicked to wish one’s time away but the men were doing so and excusing themselves by saying it brought them nearer to the end of this affair and nearer to home. They promised to live twice as fast later to make up for the wickedness. To put a light heart on the situation always helped. There was an issue of soup made from dehydrated peas and cabbage and a few potatoes to be shared.
Bert was feeling a little better and had stopped shivering. Another column on the march came past us but made no contact. The farming population observed this Easter Monday as a holiday and did only the most necessary work. I thought how great was this long rest here to give the sick a chance to recover as what would be his fate if any man could not move on with us?
Tuesday 3rd April- After the Easter holiday we went on again with building the lean-to roof. The air of boredom was gone for us three as having a piece of work to do made the day fly by.
Wednesday 4th April- The brevity of the diary entries showed how slowly time was progressing and how little was happening. Rumours of a parcel issue started a foolish watching for an approaching cart. Planes flew overhead but it was impossible to put any interpretation on their presence.
The next day poor rations and no parcels made the men quarrelsome and restless. A normal toll of our hundred men was made and said to be for a general inspection. We could not understand why. Cold, wet weather set in and men lay about on straw.
Saturday 7th April- Rations were brought to us at 7 a.m. from the company 4 kms from here at Albersrieth and one English food parcel per man and it was to last a fortnight. The boys are in better humour again and working furiously on little fires making the potatoes more palatable by the addition of tinned meat.
The week seemed to have passed more pleasantly and men did actually say that they were pleased to be in the fresh air after so many years in the pit.
Sunday 8th April- The indecision about our future here was broken when we were told that we should be moving from this farm billet to be deloused. I did not clean up and change as I had planned to do as there should be a bath and treatment for us and our clothes. During the afternoon we were told to put out all fires and as we were moving on we were not losing much of the facilities. There was the sound of heavy artillery last night and there was only guesswork about the position of this firing as we could not ascertain where the Allies were fighting.
There were great hopes that we would not have to walk much further and at sun down we were all packed up ready to march next day to the Weiden area. It was 9 p.m. on Sunday evening and the strong contact with home came to my mind. I had suggested in my letters home that we should think about each other at this time. Of course we should like to know more about the conditions at home in the same way as they were trying to find out where the columns had walked.
Monday 9th April- The day broke bright and warmer as 60 men got on parade with all their kit and set off for Stalag XIII B at Weiden. We, who were in the parade of 40 men, left at 11 a.m. in the heat of the day and met the first column returning. They had not been deloused. We were told to continue to another delousing centre where everything had been prepared and arranged by phone. Just as we were about a kilometre from Weiden a runner arrived to say that there was no more delousing for us and we should return to the old barn. We had carried all our kit and had walked about 25 kms in boots that were showing signs of wear.
Stalag XIIIB, Weiden, courtesy Pegasus archive
Tuesday 10th April – The farmer was very surprised and annoyed when we returned. We regretted walking unnecessarily when our footwear needed attention. The Germans had not given a single stud or clogs (of which they had plenty in earlier years) for the past eleven weeks. We put some more time on the lean-to and I found this much better than marching with a pack.
Wednesday 11th April –We were still remaining at this barn but rain held up our work and I joined with others loafing about in a bored mood. After much complaining and probably searching some boot studs were brought to us. I also had a heel plate. It was possible that the Red Cross had brought these with the other well-chosen and useful commodities. The boots had served us very well and now this small improvement would stand us in good stead for the further marching which at the time we knew nothing about and did not expect.
Thursday 12th April – We heard that President Roosevelt had died; I wondered how we obtained such news. Also we finished off the galvanized roof to the lean-to and had enjoyed the opportunity to break the monotony. In my diary there is no mention of food from the Germans.
Friday 13th April – Superstitious or not we wondered what today would bring. We were soon to know when with short notice we were told to pack up our kit once more and move to a nearby barn. It was a huge farm and there were already 100 men billeted there; we were told this was to save guards. We were forced onto a top storey where the roof was of such a low pitch that the situation was most dark and oppressive. Cooking facilities were so limited there was tension and aggressive moods.
Saturday 14th April – There was a brighter air soon to develop when we heard that we should be moving on tomorrow and, to our surprise, there was an issue of a whole British food parcel per man. This was our last night in Albertsrieth and we considered the stay could have been worse. I was still puzzled as to how the Red Cross was able to supply these rather large numbers of parcels under dangerous conditions. My diary has a late entry about some men being put into smaller farms in smaller groups. About eighteen of us were marched to a quiet location where we met the small farmer, his wife and two children. We found various places to sleep and remained there the next day.
One observant man saw a half-barrel tub looking fairly clean then asked me to ask the farmer if we could heat any water in a kitchen stove and pour it into the tub so that we could wash. He agreed and several buckets of hot water appeared. Law and order was kept by deciding one should not foul the water in the tub, but dip out a mugful or dixieful and wash with that ration. Up till now we had washed only to the waist in cold water and cold weather so now was the opportunity to strip completely and start washing. There was no sign of the family while we kept dipping in the tub and managed to rinse off. The great revelation was the paleness of our legs, the accumulation of body waste cells in our long johns and then the chance to clean up.
Life seemed a lot brighter when we were dressed again and I thanked the farmer. British spirit showed up when the men declared that it would be a good turn to clean the cattle yard. Using brooms and shovels the yard did become quite spick and span for which the family was grateful.
Sunday 15th April – we moved off to the Weiden district. Several other small groups were collected together in a village near Weiden. It seemed that we were nearer the front at this point as there was much air activity and the rumble of artillery. Groups of 100 men were made up again and once more the guards were changed to 1/559 group. To make up for no bread ration there was a large brew of potatoes and some pea soup. Unfortunately a man was shot here for trying to escape. The small groups were assembled and we marched off at great speed, up a steep hill to Tannenberg.
The going was difficult on a main road, which undulated through well wooded Bavarian hills. A group of American planes flew around us before moving off to gun some targets nearby, then returning to do a victory roll above us. The column was now an estimated 1100 strong and in one very long barn I met a great number of friends from the old E72 days at Beuthen [this may have included George Hawkins and my father Eric West who were in the E72 group]. It was also a tremendous pleasure to meet the New Zealanders and Australians whom I had also befriended at E72.
Small fires were allowed which helped the food situation, as the only food from the Germans was a soup made from pea flour. I shared a blower stove with a friend and between us we had enough fuel to boil potatoes. 8 km covered.
Thursday 17th April- Up at 5 a.m. and away. The weather was very hot and still as we walked on a tarred main road. After about 14 kms we arrived at a small village of Grassendorf. On the route there was a signpost at a cross roads which showed 95 km to Nuremberg to the west, 75 km to Bayreuth to the north, 175 km to Pilsen to the east and 60 km to Cham in the south. There was speculation again as to where we were heading. One aspect was certain namely that the Germans would keep us marching ahead of an advancing front until some final solution. Our chances of some liberation soon seemed suddenly remote and that earlier air of disappointment had crept back again. My friend recorded now 75 barns and an estimated march distance of 772 km.
Pea flour soup was issued and a half sack of potatoes between 300 men! A brew of mint tea was prepared and a small piece of bread.
Wednesday 18th April- We marched in very hot sun for about 10 km to a village before the small town of Rötz. The planes flew over again while we kept marching and the guards took off their hats, put their rifles between their legs and pressed hard against the column. There were some potatoes done for small groups and pea soup again.
Thursday 19th April- I have a long diary account and still add some unforgettable memories. We were due to leave this farm at 6.30 and make our way to Straubing via Röding or Cham. A group of planes passed over and rather upset the plans. Many parties of 100 men passed us by before we were allowed to fall in and parade as a column. Planes had started about 12 fires across the town of Straubing. Horses pulling the carts carrying the guard’s kit were put into a wood nearby because they became so restless. We were made to take cover near them and then I remember it rained and rained so that our great coats were soaked through and very heavy. It was dark when we moved on covering about 20 kms that day and possibly 10 columns of 100 men were in the area.
During the day one column that passed us had many old friends from E72 in its ranks. I was pleased to call to Tom Bailey, Geordie Johnson, O’Shea and Entwhistle and also Pearson, who had been the camp cobbler. A further hurried chat seemed to say Gwil had been slightly wounded when he was hit by a small piece of material from an explosion. His column had passed a stationary train where the railway line was running beside the road. Soon afterwards the train was strafed and apparently carried ammunition so that it exploded with such force debris fell a great distance away.
There is no record of food being issued today. Next day we rested here and had a chance to brew up some potatoes and dried pea flour as small fires were allowed. It became a very hot day and it was good fortune that we were not marching. Planes flew over again but now with heavy bombers. It was intended that we should rest here another day but were moved on again.
Saturday 21st April- After 21 km we arrived at a village which was used for billeting sick and wounded. This meant moving on to a farm and barn in the wilds and off the beaten track. Again there were cooking facilities so we had to cook our own. Unfortunately there was little kindling about the place and all effort came to nothing because it started to rain heavily.
Staying at the farm for another day meant the place could be summed up as fresh air and water. A derelict water wheel leaned against the barn wall and a water chute, which now missed slats made an irritating noise. The good points about this place was its beautiful setting and its extensive views. The Bavarian hills far away in one direction could be seen with snow-covered peaks while in another direction there was a flat plain reaching to the Danube. The whole area was so vast it was impossible to look for long on any of the small villages that were visible. We had walked another 20 km and had the misfortune here of needing to cook whatever you could get in any way possible.
Monday 23rd April- In the morning we met up with the column in a nearby village and marched along a straight road towards Straubing and Bogon. East of Straubing we were billeted, after turning off the main road, in what had been probably a warehouse. It had rained during the march and we were kept standing for a while. After getting a stew cooked by ourselves we were able to bed down by 10 p.m.
After much scratching and restlessness we were hustled out at 2 a.m. for a night march to Straubing. I had imagined we would be circumventing the town in order that we should not see the destruction. We marched on a long straight road directly in the town – necessary perhaps to find a bridge to allow us over the Danube.
Straubing, Bavaria 1945 showing damage to bridge over River Danube
The town had been badly damaged; it was lifeless and fires were still burning. The river was high and flowing fast, yellow muddy and carrying much rubbish, even garden sheds, rabbit hutches all of which was jammed under the bridge. The airfield just beyond seemed to have been a target.
It was dawn and we estimated that we had covered about 23 km before being put up at Leibfling. There we able to cook some potatoes which we had humped along with us and actually had a hot stew from the kitchen. Everybody was very tired and we slept till dawn.
Tuesday 24th April- the day was cold but sunny. There we were issued some rations that had to last for several days. These included meat, sugar, coffee and bread. The men agreed that it was like a birthday party. Planes flew over at intervals with some bombers very high. It seemed as though we lost one chaser plane. When the bulk rations were divided again and again the individual had quite small portions. We set about making fires to cook and brew always worried that we might be made to parade at short notice and lose the food. As it happened we were left in peace and were pleased to rest. On the road passing us was a column of civilians, some motor traffic, also pedestrians heading for Munich 120 km to the south.
After our hurried moonlight trek it seemed strange to be resting there again today. There have been rumblings of artillery; the sound seemed to move from NW to NE. Of course this gave rise to many rumours, one of them being that a spearhead had reached Munich. Actually we knew nothing for certain but a lull in all activities later made it appear that there was a condition afoot we were not expected to know about.
The Americans strafed a horse-drawn convoy the day before as it was passing through the village, and as a result we had a liberal issue of horseflesh that morning. Also there was an issue of 300 gms of bread and now that the parcel food was finished we felt we should have food for another day. It was a hand-to-mouth experience now not knowing what there would be to eat.
After two days rest here I started to think of home again. It was now some months since we last heard from our families. I thought positively that we were gradually walking homewards to some form of release.
I had observed that there were no bakers in the villages as we passed through. There was a store of flour by farmers and individual households seemed to bake their own bread in outdoor brick ovens fired by split pinewood. During the past few days plant life had been burgeoning and coltsfoot was in bloom; celandine would have been first to flower in England. Fruit trees were planted along the sides of the roads and they were giving a wonderful display of blossom.
In areas that were low-lying and held the snow the longest there was now a host of dog-lilies. Potatoes were being taken from the clamps now that the frosts were over and sorted for planting. Wheat was showing through but there were no cattle out yet. Lilac would open its buds any day but I wished a thousand times it was the little bush in my neighbour’s garden that I could see now.
Thursday 26th April– we left this village of Leibpfling at dawn and walked on and on without a sign of a billet. After crossing a canal with flowing water we found the barns and villages full of German troops. After 24 km we were herded into a wood. There we cooked some potatoes, which we had bought from farmers, but to cook the dry vegetable flour was impossible. We lay down under fir trees when a thunderstorm broke.
At 1 am. we were rounded up wet and tired and noticed we were 45 km from Mausberg Lager. Our blankets and great coats weighed heavily, while horses pulling transport moved wearily. There were further troop movements such that we had covered only roughly 14 km by dawn. A farmer was knocked up for use of his barn for 250 men at a place about 7 km from Landshut.
Bomb damage Landshut, April 1945
Why we rested there another day was a mystery when moving rabidly on seemed more sensible as artillery duels could be heard all day. The stay had its great reward. The captain with our column had visited Stalag 7A and returned with a food parcel per man which was delivered by the Red Cross transport. Further instructions changed quickly and as the Stalag was full our eventual move was not clear. I thought the story the Red Cross drivers could tell would be most fascinating.
Sunday 29th April – the men were pleasantly surprised and welcomed the food parcels but uncertainty about our future caused distress. There was a diabolically quick change of orders from decisions made by the Germans who were vague about the future moves during the day. One German decision was that we might be taken over by ‘another power’. On the other hand we may have to move immediately. By the evening a decision was clear. A nearby village had become a battle area and we moved out at 8 p.m. There was a heavy artillery duel and two rounds fell near to us. The column moved round the spearhead and stopped at 6 a.m. very tired and disappointed after marching for probably 33 km.
Monday 30th April- we discovered we were at Vilsbiburg. We had no idea of our location but saw a signboard that pointed to Berchtesgaden. Diary notes were written under difficult conditions and quite briefly but I could add my fellow foot recorder who said his estimate was marching 887 km and resting in 52 barns. The rumble of guns could still be heard. We were disappointed at not meeting a ‘power’ which we could be handed over to after making our long, semi-circular march. As the general direction was towards the west we always hoped to meet American or British forces.
There was a hairpin bend in the road and we seemed to be losing our gradual drift westwards. Sleep was now as essential as food and we remained in the barn till morning. Everybody stayed ready packed in case we had a call to move suddenly. I did not get to sleep because of the itching form the lice and constant artillery fire rocked the barn.
Tuesday 1st May we continued to march on with the sound of guns firing still within earshot. On into the Mühldorf area where we heard that Munich had fallen to the allies without a fight. The plan to get us round Munich to Innsbruck was now impossible. We could not go north because at Landshut a German spearhead had passed us. The Germans were averse to going in the direction of Passau where they could end up as Russian guests.
We marched a further 22 km to go through the township of Buchbach. It was low ground and muddy as we passed a sawmill and several barns. Civilians told us that the Americans were very near. The German U/Off told a different story, and told of a further march to a prepared rendezvous.
There was a terrible tragedy just before this halt before Buchbach. A soldier was standing on the open edge of a pasture with his kit bag on the ground beside his feet. We were standing waiting when the man knocked his bag and it rolled several yards down the slope. By using sign language he asked the nearest guard whether he could go down for it. The guard covered him with his rifle and let the man go down. Unfortunately another over zealous guard shot him. At once his friend asked the guard if he could go down and, tapping his pockets, indicated that he would like to collect the man’s effects. The guard could have called to other nearby guards that the situation was covered but did not do so and the friend was shot by another misunderstanding and zealous guard. Both men had been prisoners since May 1940.
The third loss of life was an even greater tragedy. There were twins from the outer Scottish Isles who had been together also for five years in the coalmines. Witnesses around swore a guard for no reason at all simply shot one of the brothers who were still together. One hears of the remarkable affinity between twins and this was so in this case and the survivor went to pieces. That guard remained with us for the following days and was arrested by the liberating power.
The column U/Off then changed his story by saying conditions changed rapidly in modern warfare – Blitzkrieg! The billet appointed for the next day had been reached by the American forces, he declared and so we should keep calm and await developments. We could hear the rumble of tanks in the distance. Since there had been no sighting of any tanks we were confused as to whether in the one direction, where there was machine gun fire, there were retreating German forces nearby while hoping that the rumour of American tanks would become real. While we were standing in the farmyard we received the strangest of rations, namely some rye flour and white flour. We had been in rain earlier and now were tired and hungry. Our friend Jim managed to give our trio some coffee and dough with raisins. This dough was divided into two and we set about boiling our ‘spotted dick’. For coffee as a drink mentioned during the past five years read ‘ersatz’ which was a brown liquid with an unacceptable flavour we were certain was made from ground and roasted acorns. There was a short period of drinking real coffee back in E72, when a small crate of ground coffee came from Brazil via the Red Cross.
It was towards dusk when two tanks were spotted on the skyline. To which military force did they belong? There was an intense hush and tension when more appeared with infantry support wagons following. It was quite clear that we were seeing an American force. The speculating U/Off of earlier hours now agreed that the Americans had arrived. He accompanied the senior British officer nearest to us, who was the padre, and a corporal down the field towards the leading tank. The beaming faces of the two Englishmen and the consternation of the U/Off told us that the Americans were really with us. A U.S army lieutenant followed by five or six tanks came up and said that we were liberated.
There were yells of delight and a weight was taken off the men who had been so harassed for the past few days. In typical German military fashion the guards had ‘piled arms’ as had also been practised by us in ‘rooky’ training and lined up in the yard. American soldiers saw them safely locked up in a horse stable. I thanked God for our safe release, stoked the fire, which we know would have to be put out at dusk, and managed to complete the boiling of our pudding. This was gilded with jam and milk made from the ‘klim’ dried milk powder given us at once by the Americans. I wondered what extra Jim had scrounged because he offered us his Spotted Dick as well.
We were about to make our last move when the order came for us to pack up and leave at midnight for the town of Buchbach 3km away where we could commandeer civilian billets. The final score was 912 km marched and 53 barns slept in. Now we had the use of a civilian house with modern comforts and facilities. We three found a house in a side street off the square and near the church. Then three more men crashed in and I tried to explain the position to the man, woman and two children living there. We had a greasy fry up with some rashers of smoked back bacon that was shared out from an underground, illegal cache, with chips. That was the best meal for five years. Then to sleep at 4 am. on the floor till 7 am.
So passed Tuesday, 1st May and the next day was a time that could look after itself…’