Having survived the critical first ten days of the march, Paul fell into a daily routine involving keeping pace and searching continuously for food. “The longer we stayed on the march, the less frequent those Red Cross packages arrived,” he observed. “Once in a while we would arrive at a farm and a few packages would be waiting, but in most instances it was three or four persons to a package. This food didn’t last very long.” Some of the marchers who smoked cigarettes from the parcels did so for a reason, Paul recollected. “It helped to lessen one’s appetite, or so I was told.” As hungry as he may have been, Paul resisted that temptation.
“We began looking for alternative sources of food,” Paul continued. The POWs succeeded in locating a type of food that had 48 calories per serving, with 2 calories of fat; not sufficient to replace the number of calories burned each day on the march, but enough to keep them from starving to death.1 “We found that most every farm had rows of kohlrabies covered with a layer of dirt to prevent freezing,” Paul explained. “These kohlrabies are root crops that look somewhat like turnips and are used to feed livestock. Most farms had some piles close to the barn, so as soon as we arrived a scouting party would go out and bring back several kohlrabies.”
As unappetizing as a continuous diet these tubers must have become to the men, kohlrabies were a traditional food on the European dinner table. They were a good source of dietary fiber and also high in vitamins C and B6. Paul told of the preparation: “We would cover slices of kohlrabies with German ersatz butter grease, fry it on a piece of metal and it would be our bread at night and our toast in the morning.”
It was a long, cold winter and the weather was unrelenting. At least one storm temporarily halted the march. “I remember a large German cooperative farm and we stayed there a couple of days,” Paul said.
The Chesterfield cigarette wrapper that Paul used to record the names of German cities that he passed through reveals the route that he and his group took through central Germany. From SwinemÃ¼nde on the Baltic Sea to the north the group proceeded inland, first in a southwesterly direction through the cities of Anklam, Malchin, Waren and Parchim, there making the first of four crossings over the Elbe River, and then in the same direction to the cities of Uelzen and Hannover. At Hannover his column made a sharp left turn and headed in a southeasterly direction passing through Wittenburg and Halle, following roughly the upstream track of the Elbe River. From Halle, Paul would cross the Elbe a final time and make good his escape through the Soviet battle line. The odyssey lasted three months.
Viewing a map, Paul’s approximately 500-mile trek through Nazi Germany could be loosely termed “the big circle route” around Berlin. His captors directed the POWs to places where it was perceived, or at least hoped, that the Allies would not be.
“I saw considerable bomb damage in a number of the cities I passed through,” Paul said, “but after all these years I cannot remember which cities.” When he passed through Anklam, he had no knowledge that the first bombing attack there had been the notorious gunfight at 12,500 feet that the 91st Bomb Group participated in on October 9, 1943, a little over a year before he arrived in England.
As Paul passed through or near to this city, he had no idea that Adolf Hitler and his advisors were then actively weighing the fate of all British and American airman POWs. Without daily BBC news reports, Paul and the other POW marchers were unaware of the firebombing of Dresden. Nor did they know that this event might have changed the German conduct of the war.
On February 19, 1945 Reich Minister Goebbels recommended to the FÃ¼hrer that Hitler publically renounce the Geneva Convention and order the immediate execution of all British and American airmen POWs, upwards of30,000 men. Apart from being a reprisal for the bombing of Dresden, Goebbels reasoned, such an action would have the additional benefit of so enraging the British and American armies in the field that no white flags of surrender, whether waved by members of the Wehrmacht or by German civilians, would be honored. This, Goebbels argued, would bring about “total war” on both fronts. At the time, the Nazi leadership was concerned that German resistance in the West was not stiff enough.
Hitler ordered the man who would eventually succeed him, Admiral Karl Doenitz, to weigh in on the issue which Doenitz did the following day. A transcript made of the meeting reveals that Doenitz said: “The disadvantages would outweigh the advantages.” To this dispassionate but arguably sensible response, however, Doenitz added chillingly: “It would be better in any case to keep up outside appearances and carry out the measures believed necessary without announcing them beforehand.”2
Hitler took no action.
Had Hitler issued an execution order, it would have been an easy matter for the SS to carry it out on small, remote columns of POWs such as the one Paul Lynch marched in. Many prisoners from Stalag Luft camps had been relocated by this time to other camps or were, like Paul, on the move. Only the large Luftwaffe Stalag Luft I near Barth Germany stood intact at this time with approximately 10,000 airmen-officer POWs. The Allies made contingency plans to put up a fight at the first sign of trouble at this camp, and also a few others of the lesser camps where spy information might be gleaned. Nothing could be planned, however, to attempt to save those POWs being marched.
Oblivious to all of this, Paul and his POW companions trudged on.
“When we passed through cities, guards were on the alert for possible civilian trouble,” Paul indicated. “We didn’t stop to view sights. Of course we saw bomb damage.” Paul elaborated about something important: “We were very careful and wanted to have good communications with our guards at all times because when we went through a city that had been bombed,” he said, “the civilians threatened us. Our guards would not let these people come in close.”
Paul used the word “hostile” to describe these encounters, and told how thankful he and his fellow POWs were for their guards who “ran them off”
There are a number of documented incidences of Allied POW airmen being murdered by enraged German civilians. There exists also a famous photograph of a withered old man, looking terrified, standing next to a priest and a U.S. Army M.P He was about to be hanged in a town square for murdering a U.S. airman.
There was one instance along the march that really scared Paul and it did not involve civilians. “One day we were plugging along at a slow pace,” Paul related. “I happened to be in the first group and we could see some sort of camp ahead. A little farther down the road we saw it was an SS training camp. We knew it was SS when a group of young, black-shirted boys came storming out of a building and charged us. They came at us with clenched fists, shouting. The guards became very nervous and shouted, ‘Snell, snell,’ urging us to go faster. The situation was getting ugly.”
Paul explained that the SS were approximately 15 to 20 in number and all young males. The camp they came from was a group of buildings surrounded by a perimeter fence and it looked like a school. “I noticed ahead of me that one of the fellows in our group was making a slow move towards the nearest guard. I caught his intentions. He was going to get the guard’s gun if possible.”
Paul indicated that the gate of the camp was approximately 100 yards from the road that the POW column was on. “I think they were in a class and spotted us through a window,” he said. “They came at us on a full run and we did not know if they were armed with pistols.”
Paul continued: “I suspected with the first shot from the SS, the guards would fade into the landscape. I looked at the guard nearest to me, and what he carried in his hand, and I figured one flying tackle might put him over and I could get his gun. I started my move and positioned myself only a few feet away from him. I think I had a good chance even though I was weak. He was quite old. I didn’t intend to be cut down by a group of fanatic SS without a fight. I looked back and saw others [POWs] making their moves. The guards were so intent on watching the SS that they couldn’t see what was taking shape. I hoped that none of us would make a premature move.”
As the SS got closer Paul saw there were no officers or noncoms in the group, only boys. When it was discerned that this would only be fist waving and shouting and nothing more, the crisis defused. “Our guards signaled for us to move along quickly and quietly,” Paul said. “The line kept moving and the SS kept shouting and threatening but no guns appeared. Our first group got past the SS, then the next group got past and finally we all made it. We breathed a sigh of relief. It could have been bloody if guns had been introduced.”
Paul was quite certain that the SS command had put the boys up to this antic. “I suspect these kids were encouraged to hassle us by their instructors who remained in the building watching,” he opined. “Again, once we realized they weren’t armed it became a different situation. We were used to fist waving and shouting by that time, believe me. When the POWs that followed us saw us get through unharmed, well, that was a big boost for them.”
Paul and the other POWs had been fortunate. An irony about this incident is that as terrifying as it must have been, from a danger perspective it was probably less risky than the encounters with enraged civilians in the bombed-out cities. Even though these “boys” were likely tall, as the SS recruited from the largest and strongest specimens of German youth, the SS behaved not as a mob but rather as a robot: killing when ordered to do so. In the Third Reich the execution of U.S. and British POWs needed the approval of Hitler.
By the time Paul reached Hannover, he had completed close to two-thirds of his march and the weather was moderating. This city had been a major industrial center and it was bombed 88 times during the war. Ninety percent of the town center was destroyed.3Reading about the systematic demolition of this city, one cannot help think of Addison’s comment: “When it came to bombing cities, they were all bad.”
All Paul said about Hannover was: “To be honest I can’t recall going through it. I suspect it would have stuck in my memory with all that destruction. It is on my list of cities, yes.” It was at Hannover that the column doubled back towards the Elbe River. “We kept moving south at a slow but steady pace,” Paul related. “I think we were in the Magdeburg area [located between Hannover and Wittenburg] and the Red Cross packages came less frequently. Transportation in Germany was almost non-existent.”
The International Red Cross made an effort during this timeframe to truck in emergency aid from Geneva to Allied POWs on the move. The Reich’s POW Administrator, SS General Gottlob Berger, granted permission for a fleet of trucks to enter and travel throughout Germany. The trucks were flatbed and painted white, and each had a white canopy bearing large Red Cross markings.4 The trucks traveled in convoy over assigned routes known to Allied pilots and they were so clearly marked that only once were they mistakenly strafed.
Paul never saw these trucks but made an insightful observation about them: “I expect this would have been a difficult project to work,” he observed. “Civilians and displaced persons would have given them trouble.”
Paul agreed that another problem with the relief effort was the fact that at that time POW columns were fanned out all over Germany. Finding them or coordinating locations for food delivery to them was difficult to near impossible.
“The feeling of hunger was always with us,” Paul said. “The civilians were being pinched quite badly also, but at least they didn’t have to march every day. We were not getting any news from the outside world so things looked bleak and discouraging. The old guards were being replaced so frequently with more old guards that it was difficult to get much information from them. I didn’t think they liked the situation any better than we did and probably resented doing the job.”
Paul told of a meal he would never forget: “I can recall the evening when we pulled into a farm for the night and were almost mixed with the occupant-residents. Our guards didn’t seem to care. A young girl came close to me and a friend from Arkansas and I said “Guten Abend.” She smiled. I had a thought and dug out the only thing I had that most Germans wanted and that was a bar of Ivory soap. It was still in its wrapper, never opened! She recognized it immediately. “Haben sie zwei eier fur ein Stuck Seife,” I said in my fractured German. It worked. She ran into the house and brought two eggs in her hand and we swapped. That night my friend and I each ate an egg along with the ersatz coffee and fried kohlrabi.”
Paul passed through the historic city ofWittenberg where Martin Luther in 1517 nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’, the Castle Church, initiating the Protestant Reformation. The Allies had spared the Wittenberg city center from bombing. “I was not aware of the town’s historic significance at the time,” Paul said, then added caustically: “History wasn’t of much importance.”
Paul learned of President Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, “. . . from the rumor line. We wondered if it was true and how it might change our conditions, if at all.”
Towards the end of Paul’s march he observed a long line of U.S. P-47 fighter planes, or Thunderbolts, performing a dive-bombing mission. He described them as peeling off and coming straight down, dropping their bombs and then returning straight up, gracefully “hung by their props.” Paul was proud at the professionalism displayed by these USAAF pilots. “We were far away from what they were attacking,” Paul explained. “We did not see the target.” Paul heard the bombs go off but there was no follow-up strafing.
Passing through the last city on his cigarette paper log, Halle, the food situation became desperate, and they marched for a week without much food. Their pace was down to a shuffle. Paul made a special prayer one night, promising to always believe if God would provide some food. Later that same evening some Red Cross packages finally did get through. They were delivered by the “thinnest living horse I have ever seen,” he remembered. The POWs consumed these rations, “ten persons to a box.”
Paul described what it was like crossing over the Elbe River the last time on his forced march, this time heading east: “We crossed it and were in a fairly large-sized town that was loaded with displaced persons. There was no destruction, but it seemed like there were a lot of people who didn’t have anything and didn’t know where to go.” Paul added: “I remember going across a long bridge and seeing all those people.” The Germans Paul observed undoubtedly very much hoped to cross that same bridge only going in the other direction. After four crossings he was again on the same side of the river as the Red Army.
Paul could not have known it at the time but a couple of months earlier at the Yalta Conference the Elbe River had been agreed upon as an East-West dividing line. Also, there was this agreement:
. . . all United States citizens liberated by the forces operating under Soviet command will, without delay after their liberation, be separated from enemy prisoners of war and will be maintained separately from them in camps or points of concentration until they have been handed over to the United States authorities, as the case may be, at places agreed upon between those authorities.5
A reciprocal provision (identically worded) was in place for the return of Soviet citizens liberated by the forces of the United States.
The pact also contained an unusual stipulation:
Hostile propaganda directed against the contracting parties or against any of the United Nations will not be permitted.6