Peter Green, The March East 1945: The Final Days of Oflag IX A/H and A/Z. Stroud: Spellmount, 2012. Sources. Bibliography. 192pp.
This account of the evacuation of two of the allied prisoner of war camps nearest to the western borders of Germany in April 1945 sheds some interesting light on the collapse of Germany and the chaos of the last days of the Second World War. It tells the story of Oflags IX A/H and A/Z, which were situated at Spangenberg and Rotenberg, and their march west away from the advancing allied armies in from the 27th March to the 17th April 1945. The author describes how this march was not a ‘death march’ as experienced by allied prisoners of war marching towards central Germany away from the advancing Russian army in the winter of 1944/45. The German officers of the camps marching east managed to keep the prisoners of Oflag IX A/H and A/Z away from rogue elements of the German Army and managed for a while to elude the allied armies who were travelling at speed at times only hours away.
The narrative is lavishly illustrated by sketches from the notebook of Captain John Macindoe of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and by the photographs taken by Lee Hill, a non-combatant filmmaker and photographer captured in North Africa in 1941. The writings, diaries and papers of forty prisoners have been used, some to establish the background to prisoner life and some first-hand accounts of the march. Usefully he references all these accounts in a list of archival sources an extensive bibliography.
The everyday life in the two camps is detailed in Chapter 1, with descriptions of ‘kriegie’ life and the increasing concern with food supplies at the beginning of 1945. Some of the prisoners had been captured in Norway and at Dunkirk and had been in captivity for over four years. The news that the allies had crossed the river Rhine resulted in rejoicing at the camps at the prospect of liberation. Their captors, however, following the Geneva Convention that states that prisoners of war should be removed from battlefield danger, decided to evacuate the camps. The two camps were amalgamated for this purpose, and as the prisoners had to make decisions as to whether to use the opportunity to escape the loosely guarded columns as the men set off. Although most of the men considered that, they would be safer with the protection of their captors rather than escaping and running the risk of being recaptured by SS units, five escaped almost immediately. The column ambled rather than marched, as it was felt that the slower progress they made, the more likely it was that the allied troops would catch them up.
The narrative of the march is interspersed with the progress of the allied, mainly American troops in the area, never more than a day or two from the marching prisoners of war. By Tuesday 7th April, the column had been separated and was spending the night in four different locations spread over 15 miles. Three groups were then found by advancing allied troops and only 400 prisoners were still in German hands, including John MacIndoe and Lee Hill. They were moved to the Harz Mountains, and ended up in Wimmelberg where they came under fire from allied artillery. At this stage, the German commander agreed to leave the prisoners to their own devices and withdrew his guard. On Friday 13th April, they at last met up with American troops –the Third Armoured Combat Command. Photographs taken by Lee Hill capture the excitement and confusion. On the 17th April, the men were flown to Brussels and then home to the United Kingdom.
The book convincingly describes the confusion and uncertainty of the allied prisoners of war as they were marched away from liberating forces and the use of original sources gives it immediacy. The sketches and photographs add enormously to the narrative that is a useful addition to the recent historiography of the last months of the Third Reich.
Reviewed by Linda Parker, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham
You can download a copy of the review here.