Report on the Evacuation of Work Camp 37B, by a prisoner of war known only as "Jones"
One small working camp, 37B Stalag IVB was situated in Sudetenland in a village called Bruch, approximately eight kilometres from the nearest town (Teplitz Schonau). The 32 occupants were seconded to Deutsche Reichbahn for labouring.
On the 8th May 1945 we returned to our Lager in the afternoon to find the village choked with refugees & to be informed that the Russian troops were only fifteen kilometres distant. The guards decided (I believe of their own volition) to evacuate the camp & head for Pilsen where it was understood that American forces were in occupation.
We left the Lager about 8pm & by dark had reached Oberleutensdorf where we spent the night on the floor of a French Lager. At 5.30 the following morning, accompanied by 300 Frenchmen from the camp we set off once more. After marching for a couple of hours a German staff car came past in the opposite direction (from Komotau) & the driver shouted to us that the Russians were mere minutes behind him. We scattered to take shelter in whatever cover we could find. Within a few minutes aircraft & artillery were strafing the area & soon the advancing tanks and infantry reached us & passed on. When the noise had abated a little we emerged & encountered a Russian motorcycle despatch rider. Fortunately we had for some time been cognizant of the Russian phrase for "I am English" & were therefore able to identify ourselves to both the despatch rider & a following patrol.
In due course we made our way back to Oberleutensdorf where Czech Patriots (who appeared to have been put in charge of the Town by the Russians) housed us in a school. We were warned not to leave the premises as a considerable number of S.S. troops were still in the vicinity. I should mention that when we scattered we split into a number of groups & only some fifteen of our original thirty two comprised the party which returned to the town. There was considerable small arms fire for some three days and, when it abated a little, four of us retraced our steps to Bruch to ascertain whether the other men from our Lager had returned there - the Lager was empty & there was no indication that they had returned.
On our return to Oberleutensdorf we deemed it expedient to make our way to the other side of the Town where a large P.O.W. camp was situated which had hitherto housed some 1000 P.O.Ws. We moved to this camp on the 12th May & reported to a hut which had been set up as an administration office. Here we were told that a small group, headed by a Padre, had already set off under escort to try to establish contact with the American forces & acquaint them of our existence.
On the morning of the 15th May we were paraded & marched to the railyard & entrained into goods wagons. We understood that the Russians had made arrangements for the train to be driven to a rendezvous with the Americans. We sat in the trucks for most of the day & were then returned to the camp having been told that a locomotive could not be made available. Since this false start coincided with news on the BBC that difficulties had arisen between the Western Allies & Marshall Tito regarding the future status of Trieste we were very apprehensive & there was a great deal of speculation as to whether our next destination could be in an Easterly direction.
During the following days many of us explored the possibilities of making our own way back to either Prague or Pilsen. Since rail transport was out of the question (it was almost impossible to get into the station let alone finding a space in or on one of the very few operating trains) the only option available was to make the journey on foot. The Russians made no attempt to contain us within the camp but we were warned that it was very dangerous to move out of the precincts of the town since there had been a number of instances of S.S. troops killing P.O.Ws in the surrounding countryside & taking their uniforms in order to assume a safer identity. In fact, whilst we were housed in the school a man speaking with a doubtful American accent & wearing a British battledress had come to us for food & accommodation. We intended to acquaint the Czech Authorities but he disappeared overnight. Nevertheless some of the camp inmates decided to risk the danger & try to reach the Americans on foot. I, & some half a dozen others from our original working camp decided to remain at the main camp with the majority of the inmates for a few more days before reviewing matters.
Our patience was rewarded on the 20th May when a large convoy of American trucks appeared & we were transported to the Third Army US, Provost Marshalling Section, PWX Pilsen. We remained there for two days & were then flown by Dakotas to Rheims & thence by Lancaster bombers to England.
As you will see from the above there were a number of reasons for registered P.O.W's not returning to England.
1. There were a few who elected to remain in the area in which they had been imprisoned for personal reasons - out of our complement of 32 one had formed a romantic attachment locally & chose to remain behind when the camp was evacuated.
2. Casualties undoubtedly occurred as a result of being caught in the crossfire of advancing troops.
3. Despair after several years in captivity caused by the uncertainty of it & when full freedom might be obtained led to a number taking the unwise step of going it alone & undoubtedly some of these fell prey to the marauding bands of SS troops.
4. There were casualties on the journey from Oberleutensdorf to Pilsen - this was over extremely rough & dangerous mountain roads & I know of at least one transport with some 40 men on it going off the road & plunging several hundred feet. Since this was before registration at Pilsen it can only be assumed that the identity of those killed would not be known.
The only positive figure I can give on the number of men who returned to England from the 32 in my camp is 8 since we travelled together throughout, but I would consider it most likely that there were several more who made it back home.