The Long March January-April 1945

In January 1945 a decision was made to evacuate E72, along with all other workcamps in the Eastern sector of Germany and Poland. The men received little notice but there had been rumours, audible artillery fire and gunflashes in the distance as the Red Army advanced towards the Geman border, which ran just outside the mine boundary. The camp was evacuated on 22nd January 1945.

Many of the Long March routes from Stalag VIIIB and its associated workcamps are described in the website This exellent resource describes the appalling conditions the men encountered during the coldest winter of the 20th Century: inadequate food, lack of communication and brutality of the guards. Like many of the survivors, my father never spoke about his experiences.

Soviet advance into Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia 1945

Thanks to Heather Holmes, who’s father George Holmes was also POW at E72 Beuthen from 17th February 1944- January 1945, and local Czech historian Jiri Zeman, I’ve tried to trace the probable Long March route taken by my father and the 400 or so inmates of E72.

I was able to visit the starting point at site of the E72 workcamp, Bytom, Poland in December 2021, as well as the site of Stalag VIIIB in Lambinowice, and drove a hire car from there along some of the route across the Polish border into North Eastern Czechia.

In May 2023 I re-visited Czechia and drove a hire car along further leg of the route between Holice and Karlovy Vary.

George Holmes’ father kept a diary that recorded the list of German place names that he encountered and were in use in Sudeten Czechoslovakia in 1945. Post-war all these German names were replaced- a humanitarian disaster had unfolded during 1945; ethnic Sudeten/German citizens were forcibly moved into what was to become modern German territory. As a result much of the memory of local history has been permanently lost.

I’ve based my estimate of the route largely on George Holmes’ diary, combined with the various meeting points throughout the route described by Norman Gibbs where he was re-united with his E72 comrades.

Holmes also recorded his memories of POW life and the Long March on audiotape to his grandson Simon, who produced a transcript as part of a school history project which I have added below.

Beuthen to Steblowitz

Holmes’ orginal Long March diary

The E72 route

Jiri Zeman has identified the majority of these German place names and created a plot of the E72 Long March route though modern Poland, Czechia and Germany, shown above.

The E72 Long March would have started outside the mine complex in Beuthen (now Bytom Poland)

George Holmes’ Long March Diary:

22 Jan 1945 – 7 Feb 1945

8 Feb 1945- 16th March 1945

17th March 1945- Liberation

‘Weiden (East Bavaria)- End of Walk’ 1-4-45′

‘Worth-Altheim- Released by Gen Patton’s tanks 7-4-45’

‘1-5-45: Regensburg to Rheims (by Douglas plane)’. ‘Wing, Buckinghamshire (by Lancaster bomber)’

George Holmes’ Audio DiaryTranscript

Transcript of Holmes’ audiotape recollection, here describing a probable encounter with ‘John the Bastard’ the notorious Commandant at E72 Arbeitskommando.

Transcript of Holmes’ audiotape recollection describing preparations for, and start of, the Long March in January 1945

Transcript of George Holmes’ audiotape recollection describing the Long March, crossing from Silesia into Czechoslakia in January- February 1945

Transcript of George Holmes’ audiotape recollections, describing the Long March entering Bavaria in March-April 1945

Transcript of George Holmes’ audiotape recollection of his Liberation and return to the UK in May 1945

Operation Exodus’- the RAF provided air transport for repatriation of the 1/4 million ex POWs from occupied Germany

Long March Route Revisted, 2021-2023

Leaving the E72 site, Bytom Poland in December 2021

The iconic Radio Tower at Gleiwitz (Gliwice, Poland). Here my father managed to escape the Long March with the aim of reaching the advancing Red Army before his recapture 24 hr later

On the main route from Bytom heading West and (below) entering Czechia

Approach to Holice, Czechia on Long March route, May 2023

Horlice, Czechia (marked as ’10’ on map)

The approach to Hradec Kralove (point 11 on map) and (below) the same town in 1945:

Czech village on Long March route (point 12 on map)

Trosky Castle from Jicin, Czechia (point 13 on map)

Long March route (point 13-14 on map)

Near Brezno (point 15 on map)

Karlovy Vary, Czechia (point 19 on map)

One of the few images of a Long March column in Bavaria 1945

Another rare image of bomb damage, Bavaria 1945

Advance of Allied Armies 19 April- 7th May 1945

My father’s Liberation Questionaire dated 30th April 1945.

According to George Holmes’ diary this would have been signed in Altheim, Bavaria prior to air transfer to the UK

Extract from ‘The Psychiatrist‘ describing my father’s imagined recollection of his Long March

‘…We’d heard rumours about evacuating the camp for a couple of days. In the end, it was all done in a mad hurry after the night shift had finished. One minute the men were digging coal, the next we were told to collect our belongings and get ready to march. I remember the exact day we left, 23rd January 1945. It was bitterly cold. Engelskircher had left the office a few days previously, I wasn’t told where he had gone. We never saw him again. I remember realising that we had made no provisions as far as food or shelter was concerned. I was tasked with translating the guards’ instructions to the men. It was clear they didn’t have any idea what we were doing. I remember looking into the bewildered faces of the guards, they were herding us to nowhere in particular. During those first few days, we were all marched long and hard, twenty miles a day through deep snow. Anyone who didn’t keep up was left to freeze in the nearest ditch.”

I paused as Mania turned towards her mother and recounted the story. Elwira listened and nodded intermittently with rapt attention. Hearing it retold in Mania’s delightful Polish with all its inflections made it feel safe to go on. Despite the late hour, I felt, for the first time, I could tell my story to an interested audience. Somehow the pauses for translation made my story feel truthful and valid.

I went on, “It was chaos, brutal chaos. There must have been about twenty work camps evacuated round here: hundreds of prisoners marching in columns, three or four men abreast. I’d say there were more than three thousand men. We were marched through Hindenburg and on to Gliwice.”

I heard Mania translate those place names as Zabrze and Gliwice. The name Hindenburg, with its German connotations, had been changed completely. Elwira nodded in understanding.

“The guards’ only concern was the Russians, about to cross the border into the Fatherland, and what they would do. We could hear their guns constantly.”

“Did they know it was over at that point?” asked Mania.

I nodded slowly. “Yes… they did, we all did.”

Elwira spoke again in Polish and Mania translated.

“My mother asks, you weren’t told where you were going?”


There was more rapid-fire conversation in Polish between Mania and her mother. She turned to me and said, “Mother asks if you know the route you took, where did you end up?”

“After the first day’s marching, I made a break for it, Mania. I hid in a graveyard in Gliwice. I thought I could wait there until the Russians came and I could turn myself in to them.” Mania looked at me admiringly, her hero surrogate grandfather again.

“But, I got arrested by a German Feldwebel. He pointed his gun at me and said ‘come on soldier, time to join your friends.’ I’d had about two hours of freedom in five years. Trust my luck to get caught, but at least I’m alive to tell the tale I suppose. Your father was kind enough to stop while I visited that graveyard on our way to Lamsdorf yesterday.”

I went on, “By February, it was still extremely cold, but the snow was starting to turn into wet slush. Our boot uppers were soaking wet and, after walking all day, our feet were sore. The temptation was to take our boots off at night. The problem was that the boots wouldn’t go back on again. Our feet were swollen and the boot uppers froze like plywood, the leather laces snapped. We soon learned we had to sleep with boots on, if possible under straw to make it possible to endure the numbness. I decided to keep my boots on the entire time.”

I looked down on my brown leather brogues. My feet carry the scars of those blisters to this day. I paused while the story was converted into the music of spoken Polish.

“Mania, we were walking in the opposite direction from our route into captivity and that helped to keep us going. And it really helped psychologically when we crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. The locals were much more friendly there, even the guards seemed to relax slightly. Some of the men kept diaries of the places we walked through, but I didn’t keep any notes. A lot of the towns and villages had the signs removed. I just kept my head down and walked, trying my best to keep in step. After about five hundred miles, I do remember one place, Marienbad, a spa town in Czechoslovakia. It was stunningly beautiful there. I must have made a mental note to remember this place, and it was here I felt reconnected with the natural world that me and my friend Jack had always loved. I remember feeling the temptation to fall out, to risk being shot, just to lie down on the meadow and enjoy the sensation of spring emerging. There were fruit trees along the sides of the roads in wonderful displays of blossom.”

I thought to myself, Yes that’s a place Geoff and I could visit, perhaps next year.

“Around the beginning of April, we had crossed the border back into Germany. Now we were in Bavaria, very different to the Silesia we’d left two months previously. There were mountains in the distance, we were marching through forests and fields. The farms were still being worked, there were cows and chickens and more food to scavenge.

We started to hear heavy artillery in the distance. I overheard whispered conversations between the guards, I could tell it was all over. ‘Deutschland ist Kaput’ one of them said. One day some American planes flew around us before moving off to strafe some targets nearby, they returned to do a victory roll above us.”

Mania translated to her mother, and I smiled as she used her outstretched hand to simulate an aeroplane rolling over the kitchen table.

“At last, I met the Americans somewhere in Bavaria. It was General Patton’s Army. I waved in their direction, but to my horror one of the GIs knelt on the ground, lifted his rifle and fired two shots in my direction. I could feel my heart pounding as I realised it could be all over at the very last moment. Luckily for me, he was a rotten shot. After a few more POWs emerged, the GIs took a closer look at our rabble and realised we were British.”

I took a deep breath.

Finally, I had recounted the story, for the first time to anyone, not on a psychiatrist’s couch but right here in my taxi driver’s flat. It was the early hours of a winter’s morning in communist Poland. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.

It slowly sank in after forty years. I was so damn scared. There was no end destination for that darned March. The Germans had been playing for time, running away and using us as their human shields. I felt a knot in my stomach as I thought of all those pointless deaths, men who had survived five years of hell only to fall at the very last hurdle. We thought we had starved in the camps, thought that food was scarce. It was nothing compared to what we endured on those long miles through Silesia, Czechoslovakia and then southern Germany. Night after night for three months we expected at least a barn and the equipment to boil up a pot or start a warm fire. Sometimes there was nothing. We raided beet fields and scavenged for root vegetables in fields long abandoned. Occasionally, we struck lucky and came across a field of potatoes. The Germans watched on as we scrambled and scraped on our hands and knees in the frozen ground. At the point of a gun, we were forced to hand over the lion’s share of what we had found.

I can’t remember now whether I ended the war angry, relieved, or perhaps just shell-shocked. I know I was hungry. I’d completed an IS9 Liberation questionnaire on 30th April 1945. I handed it in to the soldiers processing us in Brussels. It reflected anger for sure. In the box entitled, ‘Have you any other matter of any kind you wish to bring to notice?’ I had written:

‘Being thoroughly familiar with German methods of extracting the last ounce of work from POWs in the coal mines of Silesia, I wish to draw attention to the slave methods used against us, inadequate food and refusal to replace worn-out boots or clothing.’

Now I realise I had blocked it all out, I hadn’t told my wife, my children, Geoff, anybody. I remembered that when we got home the official advice for us returning POWs was, ‘Least said, soonest mended.’ 

I’d read accounts from other POWs, I thought they had exaggerated, used a bit of poetic license to enhance their stories. Now I knew differently. I looked at Elwira’s tear-streaked face as Mania finished recounting my story to her. Surely, I had been to Hell and back?