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In War, resolution, in defeat, defiance, in victory, magnanimity, in peace, goodwill.-- Winston Churchill
The Coming of the Russians7744 Reads
In April, 1945, we awakened every morning to a tremendous, though distant, artillery barrage to the East and Southeast of Barth. We knew that Marshall Rokassofsy’s First Ukrainian Army was attacking across Northern Germany and was getting closer by the day. Our spirits rose at the prospect of being liberated soon. The German guards were increasingly nervous, and a bit more friendly than they had been.
One day the Camp Commandant (a pretty fair and decent officer) had our senior officers in for a conference. It was obvious that the Russians would be arriving soon and he wanted to march us (long with the German contingent) west to allied lines. The Allies were some 100 plus miles west, and we felt that 9,000 unidentified males marching down the road would be a very attractive target to roaming Allied pilots (who might not suspect that they were our POW’s). Our senior people objected to the plan on those grounds and urged the Commandant to leave with his people. We would stay, take over the camp, and await the Russian’s arrival. He finally agreed, feeling he didn’t have much choice at this point with Germany’s demise so near. It was arranged that the Germans would leave that night after midnight. Prior to leaving, the German guards would unlock certain barracks and let out our key people out to run the camp. I was the only one to be let out of Barracks 4, and was waiting at the door at 0100 hours (one a.m.) when the guard opened it. Everyone else in the barracks was asleep. I felt sorry for the old guard. As he let me out, he said, "Alles ist Weg. Alles ist we;Der Krieg ist beendet”. I said a few words of condolence and hope for the future. He said, “Now we must fight together against the Russians”, and I gave him some non-committal answer. By pre-arrangement, all of we chosen few met in the “Vorlager” and were assigned offices and briefed on our duties. My first act was to find the keys to the jail, remembering that “Russ” Spicer was in there under sentence of death for inciting a mutiny. Russ had no idea of what was happening, having been in solitary confinement and incommunicado for many months. He was still asleep when I unlocked his cell and shook him by the shoulder saying, “Wake up Russ, the Germans are gone and the Russians are coming.” He roused a little, looked at his watch, and replied, “Tell you what Richie, this is my 6-month anniversary in here. Just leave the door unlocked and I’ll see you in the morning.” He turned over and went back to sleep! My job was Wing A-4 and I was responsible for food and transportation. Food was the most important issue since we had a population of 9,000 and virtually no food left. We had decided to send out a patrol to the East every night in an effort to link up with the Russian forces to make them aware that there were 9,000 Allied POW’s not far to the West. On the third night, our patrol (Russian speaking prisoners driving a charcoal burning truck) encountered a Russian advance patrol also driving a charcoal burning truck. After a tricky period of identification, the Russians were very friendly. The two patrols came west together. Upon spying a large German farmhouse, the Russians kicked the door in, roused the inhabitants, and demanded wine, which they received in some quantity. These patrols arrived at the camp about dawn and continued to celebrate for a while before the Russians headed back east to check in with their unit. About 1100 hours the first Russian troops showed up; five or six soldiers on horseback armed to the teeth. We greeted them and invited them into our senior officer’s office (it had been the German Commandant’s office). A picture of Hitler was still hanging on the wall, and when the Russians saw it they went berserk and took turns smashing it with rifle butts. Next they came up to the main gate, behind which were prisoners jammed-up in an effort to see what was going on. Our people were of course manning the gate and keeping the POW’s in the camp for their own safety. Outside, it had been a virtual no-man’s-land for three days. The obviously drunk Russian leader said through our interpreter, “The Americans are my friends. Why are they behind the fence?” It was explained that this was for their own good, but he would have no part of that. He pulled his pistol and ordered our guard to open the gate, which he did. About 700 dumb Americans (with no identification) streamed out of the gate and disappeared into the countryside. We learned later that a number of them did not survive this adventure. Since the Germans had left only old people and kids, any able-bodied individuals would appear to be the German soldiers. The Russian spearhead proper began arriving the next day. It consisted of horses and wagons (nose to tail), about half a dozen soldiers on each wagon, plus a couple of young girls. They were all riding atop a mound of loot they had collected including silver, linens, china, and other items. Most were drunk, heavily armed, and looked like Mongols. I was able to make contact with a Russian Major in the supply section of the Division that occupied the area. Through him, I was able to arrange a meeting at the Division Headquarters to submit our request for food and other supplies. The headquarters was about 80 miles south of the camp, about halfway to Berlin. British Major Tag Pritchard and I drove down in a commandeered Volkswagen. It was an eerie trip with no sign of life on the road. There were dead horses, burned out trucks, and knocked-out tanks here and there. We finally found the Division Headquarters in a huge old farmhouse surrounded by a sea of mud (it had been raining quite a bit). A female Russian MP motioned us to park close to the house in a fairly dry spot. We were met by my Russian Major friend, who escorted us into a side room of the house. It was furnished with a beautiful round cherry table and chairs, which Tag, myself, and about six Russians sat around for our conference. I presented our needs from my little notebook; so many tons of meat, potatoes, vegetables, and flour. We also asked for about 2,500 liters of Benzine for our vehicles. The Russians approved of most everything except the Benzine, but threw in a couple barrels of herring, which we accepted. The meeting had only taken about 20 minutes during which one Russian dressed as a civilian sat there listening while carving on the beautiful cherry tabletop with a large knife! I assumed he was one of the secret police. The Russian Colonel now invited us to lunch and we were happy to accept. He escorted us into the spacious dining room to a large table set with linens, candles, and flowers. There was a water glass at each place and a number of bottles on the table along with scanty helpings of food. A basket held little squares of white bread (I hadn’t seen any of that since we got to Germany), and there was a little dish of cut up herring as well. The Colonel stood up and we all rose to join in his toast to Franklin Roosevelt, to the American/Russian alliance, and finally to our victory over the Nazis. I took a sip from my glass, and realized that, whatever it was, it was mighty strong stuff. The Russians all drained their glasses and those on each side of me insisted that I do the same. I finally did, with reluctance. Somebody filled the glasses again and I had enough presence of mind to propose a toast to Joseph Stalin, the great Red Army, and particularly to the unit that liberated us. Again, we went through the same drinking drill. I was beginning to see shooting stars when the Colonel said, “I am sorry we don’t have any more German Schnapps, we only have Russian Schnapps”, and the glasses were filled again. My memory fails here and I was not aware of anything else until someone pulled me from under the table by my feet. There I was…face down on the floor…. Everything was in a hazy slow motion after they got me up. A Russian had me on each arm and they walked me out into the muddy farmyard while I “tossed” everything I had eaten. I was aware of baby pigs running around. Tag Pritchard had disappeared and the Russians assured me they would take me home. They finally put me in a Mercedes touring car with red leather upholstery and the top down. Someone crammed a greasy old helmet on my head and a Russian driver drove me back to the prison camp. The fresh air helped a bit. My roommates greeted me with unnecessarily crude remarks as I staggered in and collapsed on my bunk. Next morning, I was in my office bright and early (probably trying to atone for the previous day’s debacle) when a huge Russian Captain showed up. He was about six foot five inches tall, weighed about 280 pounds, and had no fat on him whatsoever. He was there to inform me that he had the meat ready to deliver but needed some manpower assistance. I finally learned that this meant he had 80 head of cattle staked out in several sites, and needed six or seven men to help drive them into camp. Our meat, when we got any, had always delivered in the form of dressed carcasses on a wagon. I assumed that this delivery would follow the same procedure. I hastily adjusted my thinking and gave the Captain seven men to be drovers. Meanwhile, I tapped our resources regarding cowboys who knew how to care for cattle, and ran down some sources of feed for the animals. There wasn’t much natural grazing where we were, just salt marshes. The cattle arrived that night and we drove them through the front gate and right out the back gate onto the peninsula in the Baltic Sea. Nine thousand Americans represent a wealth of talent, and we had no trouble rounding up a dozen butchers. The cattle lasted about a week or ten days. In the next few days, the flour, potatoes, and vegetables arrived and we began to feel we would make it to our evacuation. It turned out that about the time we received the cattle, our senior officer was not up to date on what was going on food-wise. He spent much of his time partying with the Russian Divisional commander and his staff. Apparently he made a remark that we didn’t have any meat, so the Russian general said, “I will give you 1000 pigs.” An aide made a note, and the next morning the big Captain was back to see me with a paper that said he was to deliver 1000 pigs to us. He said it would take him a few days to find this many pigs, but that he had a couple hundred already located. I told him that we didn’t need the pigs because we now had the cows, but he repeated, “The General has ordered me to get you the pigs”. I had a number of German stamps in the office as well as a typewriter, so I took his paper and typed “Received, 1000 pigs from Captain so-and-so”, stamped it several times, and signed it. This only partially alleviated his concern, so I suggested that maybe we could take just a few pigs. Finally it was agreed that I would provide two trucks, seven men, and would take as many pigs as they could get into two trucks. They left about dawn the following day, and it was well after dark when they returned. I was concerned about them and had stayed in my office awaiting their return. Finally, here they came with two trucks and about 40 huge pigs. They all trooped into my office (smelling like pigs) and obviously were very weary. I asked them what had happened, and got the following story. They entered a field containing a couple hundred pigs and backed a truck up into one corner. They built a wooden ramp with cleats leading up to the truck bed. They tried to corral one pig at a time into the corner and herd it up the ramp. Each pig eventually got away. Next they removed the ramp and tried corralling one pig into the corner so everyone could get their hands under it and lift it into the truck. Each pig wiggled his way out. They finally settled on herding a pig into the corner where all of the Americans would immobilize it. The huge Russian Captain would then squat down, get both arms under the pig, and lift it into the truck. He was obviously tired and smelled like a pig. While these events were unfolding, we sent a team of around 200 men to the local airport, six miles on the other side of the town of Barth. These men had special training in booby traps, demolitions and the like. Their mission was to clear the airfield of hazards so that aircraft could land and evacuate us. I made several visits to the field to check the progress by riding a commandeered motorcycle. They seemed to be doing well and among other things had the control tower radio back in operation on our frequency. A German Ju-88 bomber had been abandoned on the line. It had an engine fire on the port side that pretty much ruined the wiring harness. Our ingenious guys fixed it and had the engine running. We asked the Russians if we could fly it, and they answered “Nyet.” The Russian Divisional Commander showed up and told our senior officer that he wanted to inspect the airdrome. We all accompanied him and our boss to the airport. The first thing he noticed was the Ju-88 and asked about it. We told him the status and he replied “Let’s look at it”. We all trooped over and climbed up on the port wing while he got into the cockpit and sat in the pilot’s seat. He asked if it had been cleared of booby traps, and we assured him that it had. He peered around the instrument panel and finally found a wire attached to the landing gear retract lever. It led down behind the panel and a fairing on the port side. He called for some pliers, disconnected the wire, and removed the fairing. He then pulled out a box of nitro-glycerin all fused up and ready to explode if the gear was retracted. He detached the box and we all climbed off the wing a few shades whiter than we had been. On the ground he said, “I know this fuse. Let me show you. Come here and look.” We turned a bit paler still while he disconnected the fuse and tossed it about 100 feet. He checked his watch and said, “Two minutes.” Nothing happened for a while and we began to breath easier…until the fuse detonated. It sounded like a bomb blast. We began shaking again as he began pointing to the bushes over on the perimeter saying “What are those?” The Germans had strung fused 1000 kilo bombs in threes, placing them across the runway to make a barrier to landing aircraft. We had dragged the bombs over to the bushes on the perimeter and had not attempted to defuse them. He insisted that we all go look at these. He knew this fuse too, and called for more tools while we fidgeted. He unscrewed a fuse and detonated it. Then he pointed to a huge hanger and asked what was in there. We didn’t know because all we wanted was to make the airport safe for evacuations. He wanted to see inside so we all approached the electric fence surrounding the building. He touched it with his finger, and said “See, it is okay. Bring me some wire cutters.” After he cut an opening, we all filed through and went up to the pedestrian door, which was locked. He drew his pistol and fired about five shots into the lock assembly and opened the door. To our amazement, this hanger was filled with partially complete Me-262 aircraft - their first operational jet fighter. There were about 150 of them in various stages of completion along with beautiful machine tools. I am sure the Russians dismantled the whole thing and took it all back to Russia. The Russian General was quite amazing considering he was an Army General. We did not expect him to know that much about Luftwaffe items. We learned that the workers in the Me-262 factory had been foreigners kept in a nearby concentration camp. There were only a few of them left, all skin and bones. Despite our efforts to minister to and feed them, they all died in the next few days due to starvation. My wife and I revisited the site in 1985 and found the Russians and East Germans had erected a very impressive memorial to those who had died there. I participated in a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial. Finally arrangements were completed for our evacuation. First came a fleet of C-47’s to take out the sick and seriously wounded. I ran into a nurse from one of the aircraft who was looking for her husband (an officer from our squadron who was shot down after I was). She had no knowledge of whether he had survived or not, and I sadly had to say he was not in our camp. Next morning the B-17’s began arriving and we were ready for them. We had drawn up a very simple plan of evacuation. We would have groups of 35 POW’s lined up in blocks at the airport ramp so that a B-17 could stop with the engines running while the people leapt aboard. The plane would then continue to taxi and take off. The aircraft landing interval was about 3 minutes and they only spent about 10 minutes on the ground. Nobody had parachutes, but nobody cared. They stood in bomb bays, crouched in waist gun positions, and sat in every nook and cranny of the aircraft. The camp senior staff was assigned the last aircraft, so in late afternoon we 20 or so officers were all that were left. The Russian Division commander and his staff were there to see us off. The last aircraft landed, taxied up, and our senior officer signaled the pilot to cut the engines. We all groaned inwardly. Then, in the midst of our farewells, the Colonel asked the Russians if they would like to take a ride in a B-17? They accepted. The rest of us were on pins and needles until they returned in about 45 minutes with the aircraft still in good shape and ready to take us out. I will never forget the feeling of climbing aboard with my little wooden box that doubled as a suitcase. It contained not much of anything except a few mementos including a couple of pistols, a German bayonet and my POW Log. The preceding aircraft had all gone to Rheims, France. We landed in Paris; a ragged looking lot with our little wooden boxes, no money, and not even a wallet. We trooped into the assigned hotel where, to my amazement and great joy, my younger brother William arose from a couch in the lobby to greet me. I had not been aware that he was in Europe, but here he was. He was now Captain, a fighter pilot, and was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. He had come to Paris looking for me. After a delightful week in Paris, I wound up on a captured Italian ship in the last convoy of the war; bound for New York and home!
Note: by Maj. Gen. Luther H. Richmond (USAF Ret.), POW at Stalag Luft I, Barth, Germany
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