Ronald J. Redman

 

Camps : Stalag VIIIB / 344.

 

Ron Redman was a British prisoner of war in Stalag VIIIB / 344, and was at the E715 work camp at Auschwitz when the camp was bombed by the Americans on the 20th August 1944, killing 38 British prisoners. Redman wrote the following letter on the 1st March 2001:

 

 

...E715 (Auschwitz) came under Lamsdorf / Stalag VIII B, as your surmise. The 40 prisoners were killed on the FIRST bombing raid on Auschwitz. I am afraid I am lost on dates - I never kept memos, but here are the details from memory.

 

Our camp was just off the perimeter road around the huge I.G. Farben industrial factory as were the Ukrainian forced labour, French volunteers and the Jewish camps.


This particular day was a welcome "FREE" day off work when we normally washed our clothes, maybe had some recreational function etc. It was a beautiful sunny day when as we later got used to the Germans lit their smoke screens with the impending news of large bombing plane numbers leaving Italy heading towards Silesia, the Industrial heart of Poland.

 

The balloon was going up - this literally was a red and orange coloured basket hoisted in stages outside the tallest chimney stack to warn as to the vicinity of the plans - if the "balloon" was at the chimney top - the planes were overhead! I learned they were American.

 

We had dug zig-zag trenches in the lowest part of the camp and covered by large concrete slabs. The entrance was a concrete slope at one end. We had experienced some false alarms previously and I had noticed if one had squatted near the entrance many pools of water made it undesirable although further in the trenches it was darker, but drier! There I had resolved to go deeper into the trench as the sirens were sounding.

 

Sadly many of the lads were reluctant to go into the entrance despite the shouting of the guards - it was so fine and sunny and maybe it could be another 'false alarm'. I heard the 'whoosh' as the first stick of bombs came down and the blast blew me upside down within the shelter as the majority also affected. When we eventually emerged from the rubble we learned that there was a last minute rush to enter the opening from the ramp and an estimated 40 including 1 German guard were unfortunately too late.

 

The area around the ramp was devastated. It looked like a direct hit was made and the blast had flung the bodies far and wide amongst the rubble - some must have died from suffocation. I remember one German guard noisily suggesting that a pity it wasn't all of us as we were recovering the bodies. The bodies were embalmed in sacking and as I remember were laid in the washhouse for several days - so ablutions were not possible - and the smell was pungent.

 

Oddly enough the factory had suffered minor damage - maybe the raid had gone further afield - I don't know. So much for the smoke screen - the Germans stated that many other "dummy" screens were made in an impending air raid to confuse the bombers as to the real targets?

 

The eventual funeral was quite dignified. A small escort of smartly turned out prisoners - polished buttons, boots etc. were allowed to march out to a cemetery in Auschwitz escorted by rather scruffy guards. My small part was to help load the bodies in sacking on to a truck and offload to a mass grave pit. To this day I do not know whether the bodies have been moved to a proper grave site in Poland.

 

As time went by the bombing raids were more frequent but luckily no more (from Italy) on our camp but the factory was almost destroyed in stages. When in the site the policy for an air-raid was this: All Germans had a deep air-raid bunker under an immense power station. This included civilian workers. Wehrmacht guards and S.S. guards (Concentration Camp prisoners had S.S. guards - some female, always). All other workers, Poles, Ukrainians, French etc. were allowed to leave the perimeter wire into the surrounding fields for the air-raid duration. But the British P.O.Ws. and the Jews had to remain within the site and fend for themselves. Obviously any open ground was safer than the mass of steel and concrete structures so the Jews would huddle around us - thinking we knew where the bombs would or would not fall! Also we were warned that should any P.O.W. escape in the confusion of an air-raid - ten of us would be shot.

 

Finally as the factory was more destroyed we were kept in our compound. We aw the white overalled Germans retreating past our camp wire and knew that they were front-line troops and the Russians were coming. We could hear distant artillery fire and knew we were in no-mans land.

 

One fatal night our huts were destroyed by the Russian bombers with their sinister green parachute flares and we had to exist in our still available air-raid trenches.

 

I developed frost-bite in my feet and legs (I cannot remember dates and times but it was mid-winter).

 

A few days later came the order to evacuate. Strangely enough many of our lads had mixed feelings as the German guards (many had been on the Eastern front) implied that falling into Russian hands would be far worse than keeping with the Germans.

 

We think that the mainly Jewish internees had already been shipped out (probably to Belsen) and we were the last to go. After one days trudging through the snow I knew I could not carry on much more owing to the legs and feet. Holed up in a barn I 'stepped aside' and resigned myself to an unknown future.

 

A wonderful Polish girl with seemingly nursing experience contacted me and helped me into a large imposing house in a village where a German family had hastily fled leaving some wonderful furniture, clothes and possessions. There in a bed was a Scot named Doug Wilson who had been shot in the legs for stealing potatoes from a field - not from E 715. His legs were getting gangrenous and the Polish girl was doing her best, dressing wounds and feeding us.

 

One day she indicated she could not come any more. Luckily I could move about and helped Doug best I could. There was a wood stove and a few provisions in the kitchen but no electric light. The nights were cold and eerie and each successive day we had looters, refugees, a retreating German military police unit - whose doctor did re-dress Doug's painful legs. Then a quiet period, but looking out of a window I saw some tanks in the road with red stars as emblems.

 

That same night Jock and I were woken with torches shining in our eyes. A strange language and Mongolian features were my strongest memory. Somehow we managed to convince these Russians we were allies and they even believed I was a shot-down pilot as the word 'Spitfire' excited them and they brought in some Russian airmen to meet me. I did not dare tell them I was not R.A.F. and with the language problems - got away with it!

 

A day or two later we were transported in a horse-drawn sledge to a field hospital - a requisitioned Polish home full of Russian wounded with arrogant Cossacks and female soldiers, nurses. Doug was moved somewhere else as he was obviously in dire straits but I could walk and felt an imposter and very lonely in this crowded home - with amputations going on daily and I was very aware that wounded Russians did not cry out or groan in pain.

 

I was soon moved to another house where I was interrogated several times by an educated female officer. Had the impression I was not believed. Then again I was moved in a lorry to an isolated area where amazingly there were large huts with mostly Commonwealth P.O.Ws, sick personnel left behind from a Westward trek.


I was not exactly made welcome as food, beds etc were short and as soon as about six of us were declared fit we were given some food blankets and water and an old trek-cart and told to head for Czestochowa where a Russian train would take us East. We managed about ten miles a day in the packed snow and found it diplomatic to report to the installed Russian village Commandant and get approval and a signed pass for the next village. Incidentally I think the area with the sick P.O.Ws was Lesisk.

 

After many incidents and encounters including losing some of our six and gaining too charming Polish girl refugees we got to Czestochowa which was choc-a-bloc with refugees of all nationalities. Establishing ourselves was not easy but following a night in a large room with about twenty foreigners some bread and ersatz coffee we boarded a primitive train bound for Odessa.

 

It was a nightmare, about ten day journey. I can remember passing through Tost, Cracow, Lemberg, Jarnopol. I noticed that every halt, station and precinct had piles of human excrement everywhere. I suppose facilities were non-existent. Our train was definitely non-priority. We were constantly going backwards, to facilitate a westward bound troop train. Also met some German P.O.Ws ex-Stalingrad repairing a bridge (forced labour) in a shocking plight - and I felt sorry for them.


Eventually Odessa - billeted in an empty hotel - again interrogated, felt strangely uneasy. Not allowed out. Then, wonderful sight of a bluejacket delivering some documents to the hotel. Still, more unrest, interviews etc. Then a very ramshackle Russian band was assembled - to march us down to the quayside. We shuffled through the town watched by a very silent, unsmiling population to the strains of "Rose-Marie, I love you" - probably the only Western music they could find, but they meant well.

 

Except as we were filing up the gangplank of the "Highland Princess" several people were being stopped and pulled off the gangplank. I think that any Britisher, who had a female companion, Russian or Polish - and there were quite a few were among them. Evidently no Russian National was allowed to leave the Motherland. Also there were Germans, French, Poles, Hungarians amongst the refugees. There were many tearful faces on the quayside as we moved slowly out on our way to Blighty via Naples.

 

Does this help the theory about our people being taken to Siberia? I do not know.

 

Arrival in Liverpool - sometime in April 1945 (I think)

 

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