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Heartbreaking tales

Liberated Allied prisoners of war spoke of gruelling marches, illness and torture, writes MURRAY CAMPBELL

From Monday's Globe and Mail

The liberation of Europe in the spring of 1945 had very direct consequences for thousands of people who for years had lived with the consequences of Nazi tyranny.The Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland, the largest of Hitler's death camps, had been freed by Soviet Red Army troops in January. Many more such camps, established primarily to exterminate Jews, would be unearthed by the time the Second World War ended in early May.

But the dramatic pinching of Germany from east and west in April also meant freedom for Allied soldiers who had been captured months and years earlier. Their liberation exposed the remarkable variety of conditions of bondage that the Germans imposed.

Young Canadian soldiers arriving in England in early April talked of the privations and even torture they had suffered under their captors. They had been forced to endure long, gruelling marches to prison camps deeper inside Germany because the Nazi leadership had decided not to allow Allied soldiers to be liberated.

John Anderson of Saskatoon, a sergeant with the Lake Superior regiment, said that initially he was transported in cramped boxcars but that Allied bombing had destroyed rail lines so he ended up walking more than 800 kilometres in 20 days before being liberated by U.S. troops on March 28.

Most of the men he was with were suffering from dysentery and had only one piece of sour bread and a little water daily. "We started out more than 1,000 and there were only 700 of us when we were freed," Sgt. Anderson said. He said he was eager to get back to Germany to exact revenge on the SS officer who had torn up a picture of his wife when he was first searched.

But nothing that U.S., British or Canadian prisoners of war could relate to matched the experiences of Russian troops captured by Hitler's forces. The former benefited from the provisions of the Geneva Convention while the latter did not.

U.S. troops freeing a large German PoW camp near Bielefeld on April 3 looked on in horror as more than 30,000 starving Russians used their first hours of liberty in a wild hunt for food. Emaciated survivors rushed to almost-empty storehouses where they crammed their mouths with flour and scraped bits of food off the floors. In nearby fields, they dug with their hands for potatoes that had escaped harvesting.

Russian doctors at the camp said 30,000 of their countrymen died in the previous three years from typhus and starvation or were shot to death trying to escape. Web Gallagher, an Associated Press correspondent, described the horrifying scene at the camp hospital. "From the waist up, the skin hung loose on the bones," he wrote. "They looked like walking skeletons."

The Germans were afraid of reprisals for their harsh treatment of the Russians. "There were some guards in towers who were afraid to come down until we had quieted most of the prisoners," a U.S. Army lieutenant was quoted as saying.

There appeared to be no limit to the speed with which U.S. troops could advance across Germany once they broke out of the Rhine River valley on to the flat Thuringia Plain. Town after town fell, with 15,000 German soldiers being taken prisoner daily.

By April 10, the U.S. 3rd Army was just 200 kilometres from Berlin, as it joined other Allied troops in steaming for the Elbe River. The Associated Press reported that the Americans were close enough to Soviet troops on the other side of the German capital to co-operate tactically in cutting the country in half.

In the north, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group - with Canadian help -- was protecting the Americans' flank and heading toward the Baltic to cut off any Soviet occupation of Denmark.

By April 9, the British had reached the outskirts of Hannover and had entered Bremen, just 30 kilometres from the coast.

Great fires were reported burning in Hannover, Hamburg and Brunswick, though they had not been touched by Allied bombers. The reports suggested that Germans, doubting their ability to defend their communities, were obeying Hitler's scorched-earth orders.

Canadian troops were encountering stiffening resistance from the enemy as they sought to cut off German soldiers originally anchored in the western part of the Netherlands. On April 9, a Canadian Press dispatch said that a surge by the 1st Canadian Army resulted in it joining forces with Allied 1st Airborne Army forces, thus pinning down 80,000 enemy troops.

The tales the Dutch had to tell about the last months of German occupation -- the "hongerwinter" -- were heartbreaking. In January, the daily ration had been cut in half to just 460 calories, barely enough to sustain life. German troops were also merciless in crushing the Dutch resistance movement.

Ralph Allen of The Globe and Mail reported on April 5 that the death rate from starvation and disease had been so high, and flooding so common that the dead could not be buried. Authorities hoping to keep rats away from the mounting pile of corpses at a church eventually moved an air-raid siren into the pews. "Through the winter night, people who lived near the Zuider Kerke heard the siren shrieking above the unburied dead," Mr. Allen wrote.

On the Eastern front, Soviet forces finally captured Königsberg, an ancient city protected by stone walls and a moat, after an all-out artillery and aerial bombardment. The German garrison commander who concluded that the battle was unwinnable and surrendered his 32,000 troops was subsequently branded a traitor by Hitler, and his family was arrested.

At the same time, the Italian front exploded into action with a fierce bombardment of German lines south of the Po River, directly in the path of the British 8th Army. There was even dramatic action on the North Atlantic, where the Canadian frigate Annan won what was described as "a spectacular running battle" with a German submarine.

Hitler was still promising a counteroffensive, but it was clear that all the Allied advances would result in a quick end to the war. There was no agreement, however, on how quickly.

Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces, was warning that there would be no "clean-cut military surrender" the way there was at the end of the First World War. He warned that loyal Nazis likely would slip away to the mountains of southern Germany, from where they would stage guerrilla operations.

"A V-E Day will come about only by a proclamation on our part rather than by any definite and decisive collapse or surrender of German resistance," he wrote U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt on March 31.

A dozen Canadian war correspondents in Europe, displaying the cocky sense of humour renowned in journalism, held their own pool about when the conflict would end. The guesses ranged from April 25 to Aug. 1, with Ross Munro of The Canadian Press correctly guessing May 8.

Please e-mail the Dominion Institute at staff@dominion.ca if you have any letters or photos from Canadian soldiers who died in the final months of the Second World War.

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