Sergeant Richard H. J. Rowe DFM
Unit : 103 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
Camps : Stalag XIB
On April 5th, 1945, camp leader Dixie Deans announced that we were all to move out the following day. Turning to two companions – Jack Fletcher from Dunson and Ken Singleton from Birmingham I said “If we've got to go, we’ve got to go – lets prepare and get up to the exit gate early”. They agreed, I’ve no idea why I suggested that we left early, but it turned out to be the magic words, we missed the long walk and hardships endured by most of the prisoners. We were at the gate early with our meagre belongings and joined the queue that had started to form. The three of us were issued with 3 loaves of break, about 3lb of margarine, 4lb of rye meal and 4lb sugar. We had brought along a can of cold tea. We hung about all that day and actually left the camp at 6pm.
We expected a long walk but to our surprise only went as far as the nearby station and were ushered into the usual box cars (40 tonnes 8 cheveaux). I had earlier decided that these box cars, or cattle trucks, had been stolen from the French. The train actually left the following day, the 7th at 11am. We were on the terrain for four days with a lot of stopping and starting, apparently wandering aimlessly. We passed through Soltau, Buckvit, Janitz, MIENDORFT, Ludwigslust, Grabow, Willenberge, Salzwedel and Schnege finally permanently stopping in open country near the hamlet of Leiston, which I believe was in their Hanover postal area. The journey started with German officers on the train but they soon disappeared leaving the guards in charge.
During our journey the train appeared to have spent more time stopped than travelling, the Feldwebel allowing us out during the day time at most stops, the guards not bothering us, we making the most of it, lighting little fires, boiling potatoes, making hot drinks and occasionally bartering with locals using cigarettes for currency. When first allowed out of our box cars, I was astonished to discover that there were only about 200 of us, I had no idea what was happening to the rest of the POW left behind, and I had assumed that it would have been a full train load. We had been eating well, maybe because according to one of our chaps, the train was carrying rations for the rest of our chaps we had left behind.
When the train finally stopped, for some reason unknown to us, the Feldwebel walked about one kilometre to the hamlet of Leistobn and arranged for a barn to be cleared out in preparation for us. The first night in the barn was a bit chaotic, a lot of chaps, having eaten much more than they had been accustomed, were suffering from stomach trouble and had to make hurried exits during the night, stepping on a few faces whilst doing so – I was lucky, having no stomach trouble and had selected a good place in the barn, clear of traffic.
The following morning the Feldwebel gathered us together and said that in our present circumstance it was quite pointless for him and his chaps to try to guard us, but advised us to stay with him where he considered we would be safe, and warning us that if we cleared off and came into contact with the SS we would regret it.
Jack and Ken started a fire to make a brew and suggested that I knew more of the language than they did and that I had a wander around to try my luck. I entered a farmyard and met a Yugoslav POW farm worker, but could not chat much because of language difficulties, he did however ask me if I had any money and when I said no, gave me a 20-mark note. He then pointed to a back door of a house and said “your comrades are in there”. I opened the door and looked in and saw 4 of our chaps at a sink washing their hands and tidying themselves. “What’s on?” I asked – “it looks like breakfast” one replied.
A lady looked out from a
dining room, counted us and invited us to follow. We sat down to a marvellous
breakfast which I won’t detail.
The family were named Sasse, there was a father and mother aged maybe 50, a son in his 20’s, who had been wounded in Russia and now out of the army and glad to be so. A daughter about 30 whose husband was somewhere in Prussia and a young lady maybe in her 20’s who was an evacuee from Hamburg. During the following week when talking to this young woman she complained that she had lost her collection of gramophone records during the air raids, I thought it politic not to mention that I had helped to set Hamburg alight. I continued talking to the family after the other RAF chaps had left and was given some food, including eggs to take back to Jack and Ken, having lied to the family saying my two friends were not well back in the barn. I was invited to return.
“Where have you been” enquired Jack and Ken when I returned. Their faces were a picture when I replied “Having breakfast”! They cheered up however when I produced the eggs from my battledress. “We’ll poach them” he said. It was a laugh when he fried to break them – Frau Sasse had hardboiled them. The Sasse family fed me all the week that I was in Leiston, it seemed they had what we would call a smallholding. I helped them to plant some potatoes and did a bit of gardening. The weather was good and I was thoroughly enjoying myself and quite content to wait for our forces to turn up sometime. Although the way the war was progressing may have had some effect in the way they treated me, no way could I see that was so, I judged them to be just a nice pleasant family.
During my short stay, I did once wander off contrary to the Feldwebels wishes. I spotted a young lad about 10 or 11 with a shopping basket. When I asked him if he was going shopping, he replied that he was going to the bakers. Apparently the bakers shop was about one kilometre away from Leiston. Showing him my newly acquired 20 make note, I asked if I could accompany him and maybe buy some bread. He agreed that I could come but doubted if I could get bread without coupons. That lad amazed me, the German newspapers described us as terrorfliers, murderers etc. yet that lad was not at all perturbed walking along that lonely road with one of the enemy. We chatted a bit but not as much as I would have liked, my German was not good enough and he knew no English.
The bakery was close to a minor crossroads and whilst the lad entered the bakery I retired and watched a German soldier at the crossroads directing some military traffic. I did not stay long watching – it could have been dangerous. On entering the bakery there were five fellows, apparently bakery workers standing chatting, the lad had left, presumably now on his way home. The bakers seemed to know that I had come from Leiston and were not unfriendly. I enquired about buying some break, the answer being no. They had baked nothing that day, having no electricity. They produced some glasses and a bottle of Schnapps and gave me a glass. I proposed a toast to the end of the war, which went down very well.
Starting to make my way back I was passing a house and heard a hissing noise. It was a fellow peering around the corner of the house beckoning me. I walked over to him and invited into the house where a family had congregated. These people also seemed to be aware that I was a RAF POW from Leiston. It seemed that they were worried about a son who was a POW in Canada and wanted my opinion on how he would be treated. I now became an expert on Canadian POW camps. I assured them that they need not have any worries about him, Canada being a peaceful country with no unpleasantness as we were enduring in Germany. The Canadians being kindly people and there was no shortage of food. I did however say that the son might like Canada and not wish to return to Germany. They seemed pleased with my report, packed me a small parcel of food which I tucked into my battledress jacket and made my way back to Leiston – not seeing another soul on the road.
April 17th. This was a bad day; some military busybody turned up and ordered the Feldwebel to move us on – immediately. By and large, with two exceptions, I had found life relatively pleasant since leaving Fallingbostel but this new move seemed ominous. The first exception was at Soltau, when the train was attacked by allied aircraft. We were shut in the train and could see nothing but we certainly heard the noise which was quite frightening. However, none of our chaps were injured.
The other occasion was at Salzwedel, the train had been stationery all night, during which time there were continuous odd noises and groaning. I was curious about this but prevented from looking out by all doors tightly shut. However, the roof of our truck had been damaged, leaving a hole so getting Jack to bend over, I removed my boots, stood on his back and looked out of the hole. What a sight it was, another train was stationery alongside ours, comprising open trucks which were full of concentration camp prisoners. They had no protection at all from the cold night, wearing only pyjama type clothes. As I watched some lads were being dropped over the side of one truck and further along a German soldier was throwing stones at another fellow looking over the side of a truck. As far as I could see all the prisoners were male, the expressions – or lack of – on their faces was unforgettable. I was probably the only allied POW on our train to witness this.
We left Leiston at 8am and walked with a few rest periods until 2pm when we arrived at the village of Guhreitsen, with a wagon accompanying us, which contained break obtained from a bakery at Schnege. We stayed in this village for one night, sleeping in a barn. The following morning at 7am we left and arrived at another small village at 1pm, where we were to spend the night. Somebody suggested that we were about 6 or 7 kilometres from Donnenberg. Accommodation was arranged in what seemed to be the small village hall.
After the relative easy
time we had been having I was concerned about the change in our circumstances
and suggested to Jack and Ken that it was time we left the Germans and made our
way to allied forces, original number of about 100 I estimated we were down to
about 70. I mentioned that I had
heard that the next day we were to cross a river – the Weser was named. This
would be possibly taking us further away from our armies. I also mentioned the
large numbers of prisoners which we had found out were marching on nearby roads
and suggested that if we became incorporated with these larger groups, the
Germans would never be able to find us.
I had decided to leave that night but Jack and Ken preferred the current circumstances rather than changing the unknown – so I was on my own.
My plan was simple I had packed some food and a bottle of water with my few belongings, so now it was just the matter of getting away. At the rear of the hall was a sash window close to where we were due to sleep, the window only a few feet about a walled courtyard, the back of two houses however formed part of the wall with a two or three feet gap between the two houses, partly blocked with some brambles and some rubbish. I intended to open the window, cross the courtyard and force myself through the gap and I would be in open country.
As darkness fell I was not pleased to note that the Feldwebel had placed a gunner at the rear of my prepared route. At about 11pm I walked out of the side door where the Feldwebel was talking to some of our chaps and in answer to his query of where I was going, told him, I was going for a pee. I spoke to the guard at the rear of the building, an elderly man and asked him how he was – not very well he replied, said he was suffering from Haemorrhoids. I gave him a cigarette and suggested he sat and enjoyed it in a lean-to shed a short distance away, telling him his boss would not be around as he was busy chatting. I bid him goodnight and went back in.
I quickly lifted the bottom sash of the window and looking out saw the glow of his cigarette to my right in the lean-to. I calculated that I could be out of the window, across the courtyard and crashed through the debris in the gap before he could put down his cigarette and find his rifle. I put on my overcoat, picked up my belongings and did so. Within seconds I was in open country and swallowed up by darkness. I was now free and started to walk in a direction about south of west to head for the area where the noise of guns had been heard, using the North star when visible, keeping it a bit back from my right shoulder. I intended to keep on this course, ignoring roads, walking by night and hiding by day. I continued until dawn was breaking and eventually found some bushes where I could conceal myself. This was not easy to find as the area was mostly pine woods, underneath which there is little or no undergrowth.
Late morning I heard voices in the distance coming from the direction where I intended to walk during the coming night, so decided to break cover and investigate. I walked to the edge of the wood and saw fields in front of me, the nearest field containing about a dozen men working. As I watched they started to leave the field, presumably going for a midday meal. They looked like POW workers to me so, as the last two stragglers were about to pass close to me, I stepped out from my cover. Spoke to them, telling them who I was and my purpose; one was French, the other Polish. The Frenchman asked me to remain where I was and promised to bring me some food. I waited but not exactly where he expected me to find me, I was suspicious. It was ok, however, he later returned alone with a Dixie of hot stew, some coffee and cigarettes and some sandwiches. I had a job to eat all the hot stew it was so much, I thanked him profusely, gave him my home address and moved on. He wrote to me after the war so obviously reached his home safely. I found another hiding place and started walking again at nightfall.
During the night I heard clanging noises which sounded as if they may have been tank doors and hatches being shut, so having received training for a secret organisation known as auxiliary units before joining the R.A.F., and had been told by a commando instructor that tank crews often set booby traps when parking up at night, I gave these noises a wide berth.
At dawn I hid again in a tree covered area. About mid-afternoon I heard small arms fire in the distance, again in the direction of my proposed night’s course so decided to have a look. On reaching the edge of the wood I could see a considerable distance and noticed smoke coming from a copse about half a kilometre away and that the noise was coming from that area.
As I was weighing up the situation I heard voices some distance behind me, wondered exactly what to do, as there was no cover where I stood, only bare tree trunks. As I pondered there was an explosion behind me and something swished overhead with a noise I had never heard before. It may have been a mortar or rocket. This was followed by an explosion in the copse. Whoever was in the copse must have become annoyed as guns started firing down there and shells started exploding in front and behind me. Although it was daylight I obviously could not stay there, so walked out at a 45 degree angle from their line of fire, got well away from the area without actually seeing anybody. Although it was still daylight, I saw no sign of habitation and kept walking.
As dark fell I covered a considerable distance until maybe 10 or 11pm I was walking silently along the edge of a field, bordered by woods, when I heard a stick crack in the woods as if someone had trod on a dry twig. I stopped, crouched down, peered into the wood and could see somebody approaching, quite near. A quiet word then said “Wer isdt da”. Instinctively, I whispered back in German “friend”, straightened up and continued walking at the same pace as before, expecting to hear either a “Halt” or a shot. To my surprise and great relief I was neither challenged nor pursued. Who or what he was I had no idea; he probably thought the same about me.
I continued walking for another 2 or 3 hours, there was not a sound to be heard, having left the noisy activity far behind me I was thinking that I must be well in allied held territory, when suddenly there was a tremendous explosion ahead and a shell went over my head and exploded a long way behind me where I had recently walked, other shells followed and I laid down between furrows of the field which had been ploughed. What was being fired at I had no idea, but came to the conclusion that because of the direction of fire, it was allied artillery.
As dawn was breaking, I crept forward gingerly expecting to find the culprits quite close but clearly it was much further away. I passed a cottage, I saw a man looking out of a window and beckoned to him, when he came out I asked him whose gun had been firing and he said “Englander” then he asked who I was, I replied “Luftwaffe” and walked away.
I eventually found the gun site, with guns, tents, vehicles, a spotter plane, the vehicles with white stars painted on but not a sole to be seen. It was an American artillery unit. I pulled back a flap of a tent and saw six Americans asleep, instead of waiting patiently I foolishly woke the nearest who was a Sergeant. He came out of the tent and we chatted, I never got a satisfactory reply to my query of what they were supposed to be firing at and he explained lack of sentries because everyone was so tired after travelling non top for 5 days. I had a superb breakfast with them and was taken a short distance away by jeep to the British 11th Armoured division. The date was now 22nd April – I HAD SUCCESSFULLY GOT AWAY.
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