Stalag Luft III view of the original huts

The Long March History

Historical Background

Towards the closing stages of the Second World War Soviet forces edged into Germany provoking one of the most incredible yet hidden stories of courage and stamina in RAF history.

Throughout the war the Hitler’s Third Reich held hundreds of thousands of Allied Prisoners of War in a comprehensive network of POW camps across the Germany and the occupied territories. The vast majority of R.A.F aircrew were housed in Stalag Luft camps such as Stalag Luft I at Barth and Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Silesia. The story of these institutions stands alone, however as the Red Army approached the Germans faced a major problem – how to deal with the POW’s.

Hitler was well aware of the impending situation on the Eastern Front as early as July 1944 and on the 19th of July (one day before the assassination attempt) he issued orders for the ‘Defence of the Reich’. Amongst these orders was the decision to evacuate the Prisoner of War camps in the eastern territories and march the inmates towards the rump of Germany around Saxony and the north around L├╝beck and Hamburg. It was this decision that set in motion the events of the Long March in the winter months of 1944-45.

Forced to march hundreds of miles in wretched conditions with little food, water or accommodation, R.A.F prisoners were subjected to a horrendous ordeal; hundreds died of starvation or disease, scores collapsed through malnutrition and exhaustion. The Long March became one of the most extraordinary chapters in Royal Air Force history – and one of the least known about.

The largest of the Stalag Luft camps in Germany was the notorious Stalag Luft III complex at Sagan (now Zágan in Poland). The Sagan camp was the scene of not only the Wooden Horse escape, but most notably the Great Escape in March 1944. Administered by the Luftwaffe (as all the Stalag Luft camps were) Luft III was designed as a model camp – a camp for fliers, administered by fliers.

British prisoners tend their garden at Stalag Luft III

The ordeal of the Stalag Luft III prisoners was harsh and confusing, typical of the arduous march towards an uncertain fate. Marching from the gates of the camp at Sagan through the wooded countryside of Silesia and towards Berlin, the prisoners stopped off at small hamlets and towns along the route. Staying in makeshift barns and abandoned factories, they hunted for food and tried to rest as best they could. Adding to the misery of the march, the temperatures plummeted and the thick snow made the arduous journey a fight for survival – airman who had endured captivity for over five years collapsed by the roadside of exhaustion and malnutrition, cold and fever.

“By the time we reached Friewalda├╝ we were all exhausted, hungry and delirious with cold. The thick snow and ice made the journey torturous and led to many of my colleagues collapsing by the roadside. Occasionally we’d get a scrap of food or some liquid….I can only describe it as liquid because we didn’t know what it was!”. Flying Officer S. Parker, Stalag Luft III Eventually the Sagan party halted in the town of Spremberg and from there they were fanned out across Germany in a mixture of cattle trucks and railway box cars. Spremberg, a small town eighty kilometres south of Berlin was bursting with prisoners and refugees, retreating soldiers and former concentration camp inmates; the scene was horrific and confusing.

The Long March became etched into the history of the RAF and sits proudly alongside the Battle of Britain and the Strategic Bomber Offensive.

Images: Imperial War Museum

Header Image: Stalag Luft III view of the original huts.

Image 1: British prisoners tend their garden at Stalag Luft III.

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