Flight Sergeant Harry G. McLean
Unit : Royal Air Force.
Service No. : 1335565
POW No. : 222739
Camps : Stalag IVB
The following was written by Harry McLean in September 1998.
[Stalag IVB] was liberated by the Russians in the early morning of the 23rd April, 1945. This was a very large Camp, and had held, at the maximum, after the surrender of the Italians, around 30,000 Army personnel and about 1900 Airmen, who had been sent there in late 193 when the Luftwaffe Camps were full.
Our Camp radio had informed us, before 'retiring' for the night, that the Russians were at Kottbus, about 50 miles away, and we expected to be liberated in a couple of days. I expect that the news of the exact position of their front line troops took a while to be got back to Moscow, and thence to Britain.
Our Barrack Leader, Ron Hale, awoke us with the news that, 'the Camp is now under the Command of a Russian Colonel!'. Ever the humorist, I shouted out, "How long's he been a Prisoner, then?", to which I received no reply.
Like sheep we went outside to the Parade Ground, presumably waiting to be counted, and after a few minutes, a great cheer went up from the position of the main Camp gates, which could not be seen from the Parade Ground.
We rushed towards the central road through the Camp, and down at the gate I saw a crowd of bods surrounding two, maybe, three men on horses. There was also draped over the gate, the biggest flag that I have ever seen. The USSR flag. Where it had come from, God knows. As I went towards the gate, I could see that the horsemen were armed with rifles and sub-machine guns, other than that they were dressed almost exactly as their colleagues who were Prisoners. In rags. Were these the famous Cossacks, I asked myself.
Before I could get close, a room-mate came away from the crowd, and advised me to keep away. A couple of former German guards, who had donned the rags to pass themselves off as Russians, had been discovered and hanged from the saddles of the horsemen. (Later there were quite a few ex German Posten, housed in the Cooler for their safety.)
We were advised, "If you want any food, go out and get it".
The Russian former Prisoners showed the greatest perspicacity, by throwing down the fence closest to the Potato clamps, and helping themselves. They then took off towards the nearest village, when, on the way, one of them must have said, "We don't want these any more", for traversing the same route later I came across hundreds of POW Tags thrown around.
Later that day, the word went round that the Russian forward troops had made contact with the Americans, ten Kilometres away, where there was a Pontoon bridge (of German construction I believe). Some ex POWs, out foraging, had been rounded up by the Russians to be present at the jollifications I heard later.
Those of the foragers who returned to Muhlberg that day, were then told that any man leaving the Camp in the following days, would be shot. Of course we ignored this, and most organised themselves into groups, of which most would go out foraging, and the couple remaining, look after what baggage belonged to the rest. As more and more food came in, the couple remaining would prepare a meal for the foragers. However, there was very little to be had, other than the frost bitten potatoes from the clamps, anyway.
A British Army Major turned up, and advised us to stay where we were, as he was in charge of repatriations, and his own Son had recently been released at Moosberg. But! We came first, so we stayed. A couple of days later we saw a long line of persons working in the adjacent fields. What could they possibly be doing, we asked ourselves? Why. Laying a temporary landing strip for the aircraft which would come for us. Whatever they were doing, it had nothing to do with aviation.
Curiously, we saw hardly any Russian troops. A very ancient Bi-plane landed adjacent to the Camp, and the pilot went off to the German barracks, where, what Russians there were, were billeted.
One day we were told to parade at the cross-roads, where we hung around for a few hours, 'waiting for a VIP to pass by'. Nobody came. Perhaps that was the same day that Montgomery went to Torgau, about thirty kilometres away to meet his Russian counterpart, General Koniev, possibly.
At this time, some of the foragers had brought back to the Camp some liberated food, still on the hoof, for there was a large horse tethered near the cook-house. However, nobody was able to butcher it so it was unharmed.
We had, by this time, established our own Camp Guards, armed with rifles. During the night, quite a few German troops gave themselves up to our guards, after having deposited their arms in the local woods.
Also, one of our Padres called a parade. This worthy accused us of 'having deprived the local population of their livelihood!!!'. One of the parade blew a "Raspberry', a Colonial I believe. "Grab that man" ordered our spiritual mentor. There was a general melee, but no arrest. We were then told that Guards would come around that evening, with containers, in which we were to place any potatoes that we had taken from the clamps, upon pain of Court Martial if we were caught with any after that. For years I was unaware of this conscience bound idiot's name, and wished that I had been older and more worldly wise, I was an immature 21, to have challenged him. What a fool he would have been reported as, back home, when the Papers got hold of any Court Martial proceedings he had instigated.
Nevertheless, when the guards came around with the containers, we did hand back any potatoes that we had.
I recently did discover the Padres name. He passed away fairly recently, I'm told, so we'll let him rest in peace.
The Russians then came up with a new idea. We were to go to the local large town, Riesa, about eighteen kilometres, where we would be lodged in the Cavalry Barracks.
On the way, I joined a few others who had 'obtained' a cart, and what effects we had were aboard. On the outskirts of Riesa, we met some of the earlier elements of the column, coming back out. The Barracks, which were designed for 2000 men, were full. We were then perhaps 8000 strong. At this time we were passing the railway goods yard, and I stated that I would see what could be scrounged therein. I found a van loaded with a Doctor somebody's Pudding Powders, and took these. However, it was beginning to get dark, and I left the yard by a different gate, and found myself on a lesser road, soon meeting up with a couple more ex PoWs. It was whilst we were discussing what to do, when a man came up, and offered us accommodation for the night, which we accepted.
We stayed with the Donath Familie of 3072 Canitzer Strasse for the night. I gave the Pudding Powder to Mrs. Donath, who was unable to use it, having no milk. There were two beautiful daughters, and the grandmother, also in residence. The daughters entertained us by singing English songs which they had learned at school, with guitar accompaniment. I remember particularly them singing, "We have bread and we have wine, for we are the English. Yes we had some bread and wine for we are the English soldiers." I had vague memories of singing this at school myself, though, the words were far from the truth at that time.
The military situation was that we were in a No Mans Land situation. The meeting of troops at the Elbe river had been planned at one of the big meetings, perhaps at Tehran, and it was agreed that the Americans would withdraw some seventy miles. Consequently there were few troops in this area, either Russian or American.
We left next morning. I parted with my colleagues, and set off for Wurzen, on the River Mulde, where the Americans were supposed to be.
It was a glorious day, and I enjoyed the walk. At one stage I passed a farm yard where a group of Russian Officers were studying maps, laid out on the deck of a farm cart. I gave them smart eyes left, and saluted. They all turned and returned the salute. I was quite impressed. We had read, only a few months before in the Kriegie newspapers, The Camp, that the Russians had introduced saluting for the first time, in their Forces. A little later I came to Oschatz, where I called at a house asking for water. The householder asked me if I would take a letter to Britain for him, where his son was a Prisoners. I agreed and suggested that there might be others who had sons as POWs in Britain, and I came home with about six letters, which I posted.
I wrote to the Donath familie for a number of years, whilst they were in the Russian Occupied Zone.
Continuing my journey I walked on, and came to a creamery where I scrounged a glass of milk. As I was leaving a young lady came along, with a Pushchair and young child in it. We chatted, and came to the parting of our ways. She invited me to stay at her home overnight. I believe that the Russians, 'when the pubs chucked out' were in the habit of visiting the German homes, and the German theory was that any other of the Allies would afford some sort of protection. Anyway. I was completely innocent in those days, and Wurzen being only a couple of kilometres away, I declined. Today. My memories of that occasion form one of the pleasanter dreams of 'what might have been'!!!
At Wurzen, I met an American soldier riding around on a white horse, and he directed me to a corner premises where the owner was putting up some refugees. There were about fifteen of us.
The next morning we crossed the dock gates of the local wharf, crossed some ground towards the river Mulde, and climbed up the wreckage of a railway bridge, which I suppose the Germans had blown, walked along the footway at the top, and down a flight of steps the other side of the river, where two Americans, with rifles were sitting. They directed us to a small light industry factory where we were given K rations, and later transported to the old Luftwaffe drome of Merseberg Halle, from whence I was flown home a couple of days later, via Rheims.
I landed at Wing, near Leighton Buzzard, where I had trained, three years previously.
A few years ago, having got an interest in research, I visited the Public Records Office at Kew, and looked into the Official Reports concerning Prisoners of War. These are in the WO series...
There was correspondence there between our Foreign Office, where Anthony Eden was the Secretary, and our Military Mission in Moscow. We agreed that any Camps liberated, of whatever western Nationality, by the Russian advance, would become our responsibility. The Russians were to send any such persons to Odessa, where we would feed and clothe them and sort them out.
I believe now that this was the reason why the Russians seemed unwilling to shift us out of IVb, the fifty miles or so, to the American lines.
However. The Russians were not very co-operative.
The Russians had appointed a Lt. Col., not a very Senior Rank for such a purpose, to be in charge of the despatch to Odessa of the liberated persons, and they and us met once a month to discuss the situation.
However, at every meeting, our side was introduced to a new Lt. Col., who was now responsible, and had taken over from the previous one, so nothing was co-ordinated, and nothing was achieved.
I have since read a book titled 'The Iron Cage', and this makes it clear that all this shilly-shallying was designed that no western former Prisoners were to be allowed out of Russian hands. This was presumably related to the Ukrainian 'White Russians' who fought with the Germans, situation. We were to be hostages.
I have read that some 30,000 former Prisoners of War are not accounted for. This figure must include many Nationalities, I would think.
I blame our Foreign Office for allowing this to happen, and Anthony Eden, a man I formerly admired, in particular.
One example. When the 50 RAF men who escaped from Luft 3 at Sagan, and were murdered by the Gestapo on their re-capture situation was reported, Anthony Eden said that the murderers would be dealt with, 'with Exemplary Justice'. At the end of the war he didn't want to know. What was done was instigated by the Royal Air Force Police Special Investigation Branch, with help from the Dutch.
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