History

A BRUTAL MARCH

Wartime diaries record a trek of 10,000 POWs

KEN MACQUEEN January 13 2003
History

A BRUTAL MARCH

Wartime diaries record a trek of 10,000 POWs

KEN MACQUEEN January 13 2003

A BRUTAL MARCH

History

Wartime diaries record a trek of 10,000 POWs

KEN MACQUEEN

THE DIARIES, naturally, look as though they survived a war. The paper has yellowed, the covers are sprung, the leaves are loosed by age and harsh circumstance. At 84, Robert Buckham, ex Flight-Lieut. RCAF, 428 Squadron, 6 Group, Bomber Command, sits in the dining room of his West Vancouver home leafing through a past potent with the dreams and visions of a life interrupted.

He was piloting his 10th mission over German occupied territory when guns downed his Wellington bomber on April 8, 1943. He and his entire crew were captured and imprisoned, the officers sent to Stalag Luft III, site of the Great Escape. “I said I was going to major in art there, and I did,” he says. Buckham, an artist and advertising art director before and after the war, put his talent to good use. He forged travel permits used during the mass escape of 76 fellow officers, and recorded in word and drawing the harsh existence of a prisoner of war.

The journals begin behind the wire of the infamous camp, but they also record a lesser known chapter of history. In the war’s dying months, a ragged column of 10,000 POWs were marched through an eastern and central European winter and springheld hostage by the desperate remnants of the German army. Buckham’s illustrated diary and his paintings—rolled in a carry cylinder of soldered powdered milk cansare among the only visual record of that brutal trek in which an unknown number of prisoners died. Some diary extracts:

Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Germany, 1945

■ Jan. 18: A man’s eyes betray his hunger. Watch the eyes recede and narrow as they probe deeply for the taste of remembered meals. Watch them again as the rations are served, comparing size of portion, measuring width of bread slice. An empty belly is a very basic thing.

The room is cold tonight. Talk concerns a rumour that we will be forced to march to

the west, away from the approaching Russians. Our jam-can fire with its three-foot radius will shortly die again and we’ll retreat to our bedboards, blankets and greatcoats. The hungry eyes will close a while.

■ Jan. 22: The bleak food situation continues. Breakfast was one weak cup of Nescafé. Our lunch consisted of the daily German soup ration. It was ladled out—turnip soupeach cupful containing several well-boiled white maggots. Angry frustration finally surrendered to hunger, and we fished them out and ate the soup.

The theatre featured another concert of

records tonight; Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and a symphony by Schumann. The power of music. The mind is carried off to a point in space with no past or future. All else is forgotten in this extension of self, as one is drawn deep into the vortex of participation-then a note, a tone, or a stomach rumble triggers rejection and the mind ricochets back to this reality.

■ Jan. 27: A breathless runner reads the German order to us at 8:30 p.m. We were to be ready to march in one hour. A moment of disbelief was immediately followed by a reaction verging on panic. Lockers were stripped. Duffle bags were stuffed to the overflow, unpacked, and packed again.

Our room plans to travel as a group. Each

of us will carry a bag on our backs. My possessions consist of the clothing I stand in plus a change of underwear, socks and shoes. The breast pocket of my tunic holds a selected few of my letters and snapshots, plus my 21st-birthday wristwatch, a gift from Dad (broken since the night we were shot down). Overloading has necessitated my leaving one roll of my drawings and paintings.

■ Jan. 29: We left the camp at 4 a.m. As we approached the gate, food parcels were issued, one per man. The added weight and bulk had not been reckoned for. The cartons were torn open, a few items selected and the remainder cast aside.

I was outside the wire for the first time in 20 months. Food froze in tins. Bread

snapped into granular chunks. The column trudged on throughout the endless day, covering an estimated 36 km as feet froze and limping marchers become commonplace. We halted finally in the darkness of the bitter night, barely aware of the continuing snow and wind, numbly waiting, too cold even to light a cigarette. We shuffled

‘The bleak food situation continues. Each cupful of turnip soup contained white maggots. We fished them out and ate the soup.’

forward, peering through snow-encrusted lashes at the figures ahead and were shouted into a farmyard enclosed by a barn, a stable and some small outbuildings. Following a group through the stable door, I fell onto the straw-covered floor fully dressed, leaning my back against the steaming side of a reclining horse.

■ Feb. 2: The column came to a halt in the darkness of a train yard. A line of guards faced us, weapons at the ready. Our ranks were numbered off into groups and immediately ordered into wooden boxcars. We had no water. No light. No straw for bedding. About 40 men crowded in dark confinement. The Australian alongside me grew increasingly violent during the night, scream-

ing, groaning, and banging on the door with his fists. We could do little for him. Dysentery. Bloody stool. A Red Cross box served as his toilet, barely 10 inches from my head. Endurance was our only resource.

■ Feb. 4: We were finally provided with water at 1:30 this afternoon, after having gone approximately 44 hours without. I made myself a cup of Klim [powdered milk].

■ Feb. 7: Marlag M prison camp, Tarmstedt (about 30 km northwest of Bremen). If there were a contest in which all the rains of the world participated, our rain would take first prize in density and the ability to penetrate broken windows, and sheer wetness.

■ Feb. 13: While attempting a circuit of the camp this morning my legs began to fail me, and I tottered back to bed. Weakness is a commonplace symptom throughout the camp.

■ Feb. 15: My arms and neck are now strikingly thin; my ribs are very evident and the hollow between neck and collarbone is cupsized. Striving for novelty, I shaved this afternoon, removing my beard for the first time in months and my moustache for the first time in years. It was an error in judgment. I’m not only thin, I am gaunt.

■ April 8: Two years ago this date, we were shot down over Bochum at 11:32 p.m. Another V-2 [rocket] was fired last night and rumour has its source as being an experimental station about three km north of camp.

■ April 9: We are waiting to leave camp. A number of us broke into the kitchen supplies this afternoon in order to obtain white soap powder, which we spread over the sand of the parade ground, forming POW and RAF in huge letters and indicating our likely route with a large arrow.

■ April 12: The sun-brilliant morning was dulled by the news that two men were killed and seven wounded yesterday afternoon when the naval column, which is trailing us, was strafed by an Allied fighter.

■ April 14: We moved off at 9:30, our route taking us through the gently rolling hills of a lush farming area as we luxuriated in the warm morning sun. The guards were in a relaxed mood, and trading with the farmhouses en route was widespread. A half-can of powdered coffee yielded 10 eggs from a redheaded girl as I spoke with her at the kitchen door. The spotlessly neat interior glimpsed momentarily was in shocking contrast to our shabby and disorderly existence.

The Allies are reported to be 122 km southwest of Hamburg. Our guards have already surrendered in spirit, if not in fact.

■ April 24: Lubeck. This is a strange prison. Each floor contains but one washroom, the toilets usually out of order, which we apparently share with the guards. It’s a unique experience to share the urinal with two armed guards similarly absorbed on either side and another shaving at the sink. But abnormalities are now the norm.

■ May 3: We are free.

It happened yesterday. The morning brought rumours that the 11th Division of Montgomery’s 2nd Army is in Lubeck. The parapet overlooking the city was constantly crowded as we watched the aircraft fly

over the city to the accompaniment of the sounds of mixed gunfire on the ground. At 5:20 p.m., an armoured tank appeared on the road, clattered out of the smoke as it approached the camp. The lead tank stopped opposite the camp, the turret opened, and a khaki-clad figure popped out and waved in our direction.

The tension broke.

A roar of cheers; crudely-made flags waving; laughter and tears mingling; the guards running off, weaponless; men climbing the wire to run to the tanks; men embracing each other, shouting incoherently; men kneeling to pray; men staring vacantly, bewildered; thousands of men in a state of hysterical, blessed release. IÎH