Recalling The March (audio)
Wyndham man Ivan Dey's experience as prisoner-of-war in World War 2 was bleak, yet his the biggest challenge was not his three-and-a-half years' incarceration at the hands of the Germans — it was to come at the time when freedom seemed closer than ever.
The survivors called it "The March".
The moniker refers to a series of death marches during the final stages of World War 2 in Europe as the Third Reich crumbled from its edges inwards under pressure from the Soviet and Allied forces advance.
In one final, sadistic spasm, the Nazis set out to empty camps about to be liberated and move their inmates into the German heartland.
Often overshadowed by the death march of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Gypsies and political opponents to the Nazi regime, more than 80,000 Allied prisoners-of-war were also force-marched westward across Poland, Czechoslovakia and Germany during one the coldest winters recorded last century.
The marches took place over four months from January to April 1945, about 257,000 Allied prisoners were made to zig-zag across hundreds of kilometres of hostile terrain on foot to avoid the approaching Soviet army.
Finally, after about 750km later the dispirited men reached the town of Derenberg.
Mr Dey, now a sprightly 96, can still recall the elation he felt on April 11, 1945, the day their German guards abandoned them to American soldiers.
Mr Dey's three and a half years as a prisoner of war were over. This is his story:
We left Gorlitz on 15th February, and marched, in rather ragged lines, for two months and a few days.
It is hard to estimate how far we actually walked because very seldom were we on main roads; we went on muddy tracks through forests, on side roads and byways so that we wouldn't interfere with the movement of German troops and military supplies.
On the first day we struggled through mud on one forest stretch; the track became littered with the small wheeled carts. th. th. it was easier to carry possessions than drag carts through the mud.
Names of towns that we passed near, and which can be followed on the map are: Bautzen, Meissen, Doblen, and Borna, near where we were bombed by USA planes as we were crossing a bridge.
Luckily only a few casualities resulted.
On 2nd March we were made to sleep out in the open, because, at the previous stop, some guys stole a goose. Because I had never had a greatcoat, sleeping outside was grim . th. th. it was a cold autumn as well.
Two days later we had to sleep in the open again, this time in an old quarry - and it snowed. On we struggled . th. th. past Mulligen, Gotha, where we had a welcome day's rest. Then on to Worbis and Duderstadt. Here we were housed in a huge three storey building where conditions were deplorable . th. th. little food or water, crowded together, and, in the mud outside, were open latrines.
After four days, we thankfully were moved on, in smaller groups, bedraggled and dispirited.
About this time I developed boils, lots of them, between my waist and my knees; at one time I had a clutch of about a dozen on my body at once. On 20th March we reached Gottingen and were put in sheds at the railway. Here we worked at clearing up the yards damaged by bombing, and, while there, had to suffer a bombing raid but with no harm to any of us.
I worked only one day before being sent, with others, to a doctor who squeezed out the boils, wrapped me in paper bandages, and excused me from work.
By now I had lost Cec through illness, and had teamed with an old friend from Dunedin, called Stump Hey.
While working in the yards, Stump had happened upon a damaged rail wagon that contained oatmeal, and filled every one of his pockets with it.
Back in our shed we put the oatmeal into small bags and hid them about our persons.
Earlier on the march some of the guys had found a tin, similar to a 4 gallon petrol tin, punched holes in the bottom of it, and with a pole through the handle had a portable fire for cooking . th. th. if they could find anything to cook.
Bits of wood, picked up along the road, were used for fuel. When we started the walk again Stump and I borrowed the "stove" and boiled up lots of saltless and surgarless porridge . th. th. but it tasted great. Then, on 11th April , our guards went one way and we went the other, into a small town caled Derenburg where a Yank reconnaissance unit had arrived.
We were FREE! We had covered approximately 750km, and had been in the "bag" for 1258 days.
Now there was food in plenty, and water for washing. We could walk on the footpaths without getting a riflel-butt in the kidneys, we weren't forced to march anymore and Germans were polite to us. Heady days! A Tommy POW came up to us and asked Stump, Roy Calder and I if we would like to stay in a house, and sleep in a decent bed.
Apparently, some of the younger married women were afraid of Negro soliders and wanted the protection of whites. The Tommy had shacked up with this woman and wanted the three of us to to move in to increase protection. We reckoned this would be ok and moved in with Anna Heinrichs and her four year old daughter Renate.
Hubby was away at the war and Anna had not heard of him for ages. We were receiving ample rations and shared them with Anna, who cooked for us. One day, the three of us, having heard that there was a flour mill a couple of kilometres outside the town, decided to visit it and liberate some white flour.
On the way we were fired upon by some misguided wretch but were not hit. At the mill, the owner protested that he had no white flour, but a worker pointed out a sack in a corner.
We took a fair amount of it, gave it to Anna who was overjoyed because she hadn't had white flour for years, and she celebrated by cooking up a cheery pie for us all.
The cherries had been liberated earlier from a fruit-bottling factory in the town. On the outskirts of the town were small allotments where the Germans grew vegetables and kept a few hens. Liberating eggs early in the morning became a pastime to help vary our diet.
And then, on Anzac Day, 1945, we were trucked to Hildescheim, a former Luftwaffe airdrome, and, flown in a Dakota, to Brussels in Belgium. We were immediately deloused with DDT and given English battledress, and toilet requisites by the Red Cross, and put in billets for the night.
Next day we looked round the town, and in the evening, went by rail to Ostend, and boarded a boat which had us at Tilbury in England next morning.
By rial and truck we arrived at Margate where we were immediately kitted out with New Zealand uniform and were medically examined.
The doctor took one look at my boil-scarred body and sent me straight away to hospital. I spent a few days in hospital at Margate, having it seemed, more vitamins than food.
Some of us were moved to the Kent and Canterbury hospital at Canterbury. Though I didn't know it till much later, I was in the area that my mother's parents came from. When I got out of hospital I rejoined my cobbers Stump and Roy, and "did" the sights of London.
One day, on the street, we met up with an old friend of mine from Italian days, Hughie Doyle, who invited us up to his parent's palce in Bellshill in Scotland where his sister was about to marry a NZ ex POW.
We couldn't refuse such an invitation, and to Scotland we went. There was some hitch in getting the papers for the wedding sorted out, and so Stump and Roy returned to Broadstairs, our new camp near Margate, while I stayed on to see the couple wed. While in Scotland we visited Glasgow, made a day trip up Loch Lomond, went to Edinburgh where we looked through the castle, went down the Royal Mile, past St Gile's Cathedral and visited Holyrood Palace. Real rubber neckers! I did see the wedding, but had well over-stayed my leave. On my return to Broadstairs, I was "up" before the Colonel who sentenced me to 10 days royal warrant (no pay) and 21 days field punishment.
The latter part of the sentence was supposed to be spent behind a wire at a punishment camp at Dover, but the camp was full, and all I had to do was to be present at morning roll call at Broadstairs.
With a bit of shrewdness, I was able to move around fairly freely, and was even able to spend the odd night in London with a young family I had met in a pub at Broadstairs. My 21 days field punishment ended on the 25th July, the day we left for Liverpool where we boarded the Rangitiki for the voyage home.
We came home via the Panama Canal, called in, or rather stood off, Pitcairn Island where the islanders sailed out in boats laden with native handicrafts for sale, and on to New Zealand.
We made a daylight crossing to Lyttleton and an all-night train trip to Dunedin.
A short stop there, and we boarded the usual express to Invercargill. This part of the trip seemed to take ages, but eventually, there were mum and Bev waiting on the platform.
The four years and eight months of trial and tribulation were over.
I was home again. September 1945.
Afterthoughts: Forget Hogan's Heroes, POW life was never like that."
The Southland Times