Corporal Dale Thatcher
Unit : 306th Fighter Control Squadron, attached 1st British Airborne Division.
Served : North-West Europe (captured)
Camps : Stalag XIIA, Stalag IIIC.
Dale Thatcher, an American, was originally a member of the 40th Mobile Communication Squadron but he volunteered to join the 306th Fighter Control Squadron. This 10-man group was attached to the 1st British Airborne Division in September 1944 as they fought for control of Arnhem. The purpose of the Squadron was to liaise between Divisional HQ and the Allied close ground support aircraft circling overhead. Unfortunately their Very High Frequency (VHF) radio sets were found to be out of tune with the frequency that the aircraft were using, and so no air support could be summoned. To read more of Dale Thatcher's experiences of Arnhem go to - http://www.pegasusarchive.org/arnhem/dale_thatcher.htm
The failure of the VHF sets was but one of many misfortunes to plague the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, and by the end of the battle the vast majority of its men were taken prisoner. The withdrawal from Arnhem across the River Rhine had been carried out in such secrecy that some units had no idea that it was taking place. Dale Thatcher did not realise what had happened until dawn on the following morning, Tuesday 26th September. He was, at this time, the most senior member of the Squadron in a fit state to command, and realising the futility of their situation, with no food or ammunition, he ordered his men to dismantle and spoil their weapons and then scatter the pieces. They then surrendered.
Throughout the battle they had been stationed at Divisional HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel, behind which were some tennis courts which had been used to accommodate the several hundred German prisoners of war captured during the early stages of the fighting. Initially, Thatcher and his men were placed in these same tennis courts before he was loaded on to a cattle car and taken by rail to Stalag XIIA at Limburg, from where he departed to Stalag IIIC. Conditions here were very bleak, made worse by the fact that at this stage in the war, food in the Reich was scarce, particularly for prisoners of war. The staple diet consisted of a soup made from rotten vegetables, sometimes made more substantial with the addition of rat meat and, if they were lucky, small portions of bread. Dale Thatcher remained in this camp for five months.
One morning the prisoners of Stalag IIIC awoke to find that their guards had disappeared. They hardly dared believe that it was true and so for a time they did nothing. A few curious souls wandered into the German quarters and confirmed that they had fled, leaving food behind. Thatcher's clothes were in rags by this time and the winter conditions were hard on every man, however he managed to find an Italian jacket to wear over the top of his tattered uniform. The prisoners left the camp and marched eastwards in the hope of meeting Russian soldiers, who were surely nearby. When they ran in to a Russian unit, their would-be liberators assumed that they were Germans and fired upon them, killing a number and taking the remainder captive. The were led away and herded into a prisoner of war cage containing captured Germans. After some time of trying to correct the misunderstanding, a passing Russian soldier understood some of the English words that he heard them yelling and the men were set free.
The prisoners split up into small groups and were allowed to wander away in any direction. Thatcher and his group headed further East, however a Russian sentry on a border post would not allow them to cross and so they turned back. On the way they found food wherever they could find it and in whatever form. At a farm they stayed at they found some chickens, and so killed and ate them. The first taste of solid food for months made them all very ill. The locals that they encountered on the way were most welcoming and provided them with food and shelter, one night they were even allowed to enjoy a featherbed. They were, however, in a dire state by this time, clothed in rags, their bodies dirty, smelling, and infested with lice. Thatcher himself weighed just 95 lbs. When they reached Odessa, the group were firmly set on their way to being repatriated when they were put aboard a ship and sent to Egypt. Once in the hands of the Western Allies, their rags were removed and burned, their bodies cleaned and fed until they were fit enough for the voyage back to the United States. Thatcher, however, was still far from well and he had to spend several months in hospital before he was discharged in December 1945.
Thanks to Larry Thatcher for contributing this story.
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