One Soldiers Tale – Bankau Stalag Luft 7 Diary

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In early 1945, as the Russian and Allied armies stormed their way across Europe and began to threaten Germany the Nazi’s began a process of moving POW’s deeper into Germany. Many of these POW’s were force marched for hundred’s of kilometers in the middle of winter with freezing cold temperatures, no food, no medical care, and German soldiers shot first and asked questions later.

The following diary of Sergeant Ben Couchman documents his experience on one of these forced marches. This diary was made available on this site by Mark Bedford and his Grandfather, Ken Bedford. Their generosity is greatly appreciated.

My grandfather was a P.O.W on this march and when I inherited his things from the war I came across a diary that describes the march. The diary is not my grandfathers and I could not say how he came across it.

1400 prisoners of war started the march through the snow and ice of winter less than 1000 survived. Over 400 died of starvation, frost bite or exhaustion. Des Mathews, Dick Samways and Ken Bedford (my grandfather) survived the march all members of 148 squadron and the Warsaw 44 club.

Diary of Sergeant Ben Couchman

P.O.W kept the following pencil written diary during the forced march from Bankau in Poland to Luckenwalde near Potsdam during January/February, 1945.

January 17th, 1945: Bankau Stalag Luft 7

Things went as usual until about 11:00am when we were given orders by the Germans to leave ahead of the Russian advance. Then the panic started. Food that was likely to be left was eaten. Headquarters, stores and the cook house were ransacked.

Rumours were plentiful:

“P.O.W’s unable to walk would be left behind.”

“During the march for every man who escaped or tried to escape, five would be shot.”

“We were outflanked by the Russians and there was no hope of the march succeeding.”

There was a roll call at 4:00pm and we were told that probably the march would commence early the next morning, at the latest mid day. During this day there had been a continuous line of trucks, wagons and carts carrying military and refugees, proceeding to the west along the road passing the camp.

About 6pm Germans ordered ‘prepare to move’ and issued marching rations: half loaf, margarine, honey and piece of sausage. At 10:30pm ordered to go to bed.

January 18th

Woke up shivering as my blankets had remained packed overnight. Soup 8:30am, roll call 9:30am. Formed into three parties and were told this would be our marching order. The roads were full of lorries, horse and cart and refugees from the Russian advance.

Latest rumour:

“We were marching to Stalag Luft 3 Sagan, which was 200kms away.”

At 4:00pm in the afternoon another roll call ordered and we were informed that the march was postponed for two of three days. Half an hour later we were ordered to parade ready to leave.

We waited for about an hour and then drifted off to the billets. The German guards were as confused as we were. Food was becoming a problem, but a further raid on the cookhouse produced some oats and treacle.

The air raid warning sounded while we were preparing the watery porridge, and the lights went out. After which all the ‘non walking’ P.O.W’s were shipped out of camp to travel with civilian refugees. We were told to parade at 4:00am the next morning, and so to bed.

January 19th

Lights on at 3:30am, paraded at 4:00am. Stood around in the cold snow until 7:00am when we trudged out. That day we walked 28kms, with the longest stop being half an hour. As we had proceeded the P.O.W’s had discarded in the roadside much of their possessions that were impossible to carry through the snow. Marching with an accordion was impossible for one P.O.W and it was tossed into the snow with a lot of other possessions. At night we were lodged in barns, I slept (?) sitting up.

January 20th

Awakened 4:00am and started marching about 6:00am Gerry said that Kreuzburg, that we went through yesterday, had fallen to the Russians and that they were now about 10kms behind us. Gunfire could be heard all day. The marching was difficult in the soft snow and the P.O.W’s threw more of their kit away. The guards picked a lot of it up.

Reached Karlsruhe shortly before noon and were put in a brick factory. Received cups of acorn coffee from field kitchen. At 7:00pm we were back on the road. The bridges over the river Oder were to be blown up by 8:00am the next morning and we were to be over the river before that time.

January 21st

We had walked all night through the snow and crossed the Oder river at dawn. We were told that there would be rest and accommodation at a village about 5kms ahead. We heard the explosions of the Oder bridges as we marched.

When we arrived at the village there was no shelter for us. We walked a further 8kms and found a refuge in barns. During the night some men dropped out due to the intense cold and fatigue. The only food we had during the past twenty four hours was three slices of bread, a spoonful of bully, a small bag of biscuits and a cup of coffee we had marched for about fourteen hours through the snow. To bed and the name of the village is Buckette.

January 22nd

Roused by Gerry at 1:30am who said we had to move quickly as the Russians had crossed the Oder north of us. There was an argument with Gerry before we marched another 20kms.

We sheltered once again in big barns. We received one biscuit between two and a pound of margarine to last five days. we dug in the frozen earth and found pieces of potatoes, carrots and peads and made ourselves a cup of soup, and then to our blankets. We had two blankets and slept fully dressed with every bit of clothing that we possessed. The village nearby was Jenkwiz.

January 23rd

We were called at 6:00am and were on the road at 8:00am promised better billets and a good meal when we arrived at our next destination. However, when we finally arrived it was more big cold barns, a cup of tea, a cup of soup, we found a few spuds then to bed.

January 24th

The village we were in was called Wansen and we were told that we could rest all day. Made a fire and roasted a few spuds. Supplied with 2 half cups of soup and quarter of bread from field kitchen.

January 25th

Wakened at 1:30am and on the road at 3:00am. Weather was warmer, but walking through the slush more difficult. We passed through Strehlen and later in the day we put up in a barn at Heidersdorf, having walked 30kms. Issued with a cup of soup and a fifth of a loaf. French P.O.W’s said that the Russians were nearer to Sagan than we were.

January 26th

Stayed all day, scrounged some spuds and beans made some stew. Issued with two half cups of soup from field kitchen and a seventh of a block of margarine. I went to bed.

January 27th

Awoke at 8:00am and as there was nothing doing stayed in blankets until 10:00am. Issued with half a loaf of bread to last two days. Started marching 11:30am Roads crammed with civilian refugees. Rested in barns after walking 20kms.

January 28th

Wakened at 3:30am and on the road at 5:00am. Walking easier as the snow had hardened. Walked 25kms many of the boys had frost bite in their feet. Arrived at the barns at 1:30pm It was very cold and no fires were allowed, so I went to bed.

January 29th and 30th

Stayed in blankets until soup was served. Other rations were seven biscuits, 1oz margarine and one tenth of a tin of bully beef. At 4:00pm ordered to prepare to move and started off at 5:30pm.

A blizzard was blowing and at times walking was tough as the snow was two to three feet thick. Transport littered the roads, stuck in drifts, and in the dark we had to walk single file to get round them. Reached our barns at 4:00am We had walked 21kms and Gerry tried to crowd us into two small barns. Then they opened up a small loft. It was 7:00am when I crawled into my bed. A tragedy hit when I had to go outside for two minutes and someone stole my blankets.

January 31st

Woke up about 7:30 but stayed in bed until about 11:00am. Roasted a few spuds I had scrounged from a Polish girl, and made a brew of tea. Gerry made us parade while he counted us, after which we marched to Goldberg where we would get transport ration from the field kitchen: half a cup of rolled oats, a little coffee, tenth of a block of margarine, and a small piece of bread. The weather was much colder, I cooked my oats and went to bed.

February 1st

Awakened at 6:00am on the road by 8:00am. The roads were clearer of refugees. It had rained during the night, melted the snow, and there were puddles everywhere. We stopped at some barns about 8kms from Goldberg. There was little room in the barn. I slept at a cowshed further down the road, after fencing off the cows and spreading straw over the dried cowdung. Gerry rations two fifths of a loaf, half ounce of margarine and half a cup of oats.

February 2nd

Awakened by chaps getting water. Cooked more oats and a couple of spuds. Cows escaped and so we turned them outside.

February 3rd

Woke up fairly late, finished off my oats and drew half a cup of barley from field kitchen. Gerry issued rations half a loaf and a quarter of a pound of margarine to last three days. Let the cows out just after dark.

February 4th

Had to get up at 8:00am to let the cows back in. Ate some bread and a cup of soup. Went to bed at 11:00pm.

February 5th

Cows broke loose at 2:00am and trampled all over our beds. We managed to get them out, but we were awakened at 4:00am and we were on the road at 6:00am. Arrived at Goldbery about 9:00am and were loaded into railway box cars which were thirty feet long and eight feet wide, thirty six men to a truck. There was not enough room for all to even sit down so we took it in turns. Travelled about 100kms and stayed the night in a siding.

February 6th

Train moved off at 6:30am and stopped about every fifteen minutes. Travelled about 100kms finished off my food.

February 7th

Hardly slept. Train moved about 5kms during the whole day. Issued with one cup of acorn coffee. Train moved about 25kms during the night.

February 8th

Everyone awake very weak and shaky. About 10:00am the train stopped and we got out. Walked very slowly about 1.5kms to the camp at Luckenwalde. We were given one cigarette each. After which we had a hot shower and a cup of soup and spuds. It was our first food for nearly three days.

Bankau to Winterfield = 30km

Winterfield to Karlsruhe = 20km

Karlsruhe to Pugwitz = 41km

Pugwitz to Grosser Jewitz = 20km

Grosser Jewitz to Wansen = 25km

Wansen to Heidersdorf = 30km

Heidersdorf to Plaffendorf = 20km

Paffendorf to Peterswitz = 21km

Peterswitz to Praunitz = 12km

Praunitz to Goldberg = 8km

Total marched = 227km


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