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Library Reference Number: 175

Liberation Under Threat

Bill Taylor, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

According to German statistics published in 1999, two hundred thousand prisoners Of war had passed through the gates of the notorious Stalag 3A Luckenwalde in world war two, beginning in 1939. Those remaining in the camp at the close of the war were liberated by the Russians in April 1945. Approximately 5,000 died from starvation, disease, cold, brutality and neglect. This is the story of one inmate of Stalag 3A who survived.

RAF Bomb Aimer Bill Taylor had bailed out of his stricken Wellington over Italy on 13th July 1944, and following several long marches and confinement in Germany, he looked forward to his freedom as the Allies advanced nearer to Berlin and victory. However, being incarcerated in Stalag 3A, he was soon to discover that liberation was by no means a straightforward process.

Luckenwalde Stalag 3A was 15 miles south of Berlin. It was a large Stalag confining around 15,000 prisoners of many nationalities. The British, mainly RAF, were confined in a compound within the main camp. Conditions were very poor and food scarce. The American Army had reached the River Elbe some miles west of Luckenwalde, then stopped, according to the Yalta Agreement. The Russians were to take Berlin; Luckenwalde was directly in the path of Marshal Konev's Russian Army advancing from the south. We could hear the sound of battle growing closer until it was all around the camp.

On 19th April 1945, the German guards were seen to be leaving the watchtowers, and withdrawing from inside the camp. At 6pm on 21st April someone shouted “the Russians are here!” We rushed outside to the wire fence and there was a Russian Scout Car with a Russian Officer waving a tommy gun to our cheers. Behind him were three T34 tanks. We were liberated, or so we believed.

The front line moved on towards Berlin, and for three days we were free to go outside the camp, mostly foraging for food. An American war correspondent returning from Berlin found us, and informed the SBO (Senior British Officer) that he was surprised to find British and American POWs here. He knew that the Allied Headquarters had no idea that we were here at Luckenwalde. He was returning to the Headquarters and would inform them of our plight. The next day, the Russians closed the main gate and put armed patrols around the perimeter fence. No one was allowed out of the camp, and this caused a great deal of tension.

The next day, the Americans from the River Elbe area sent six Army lorries to evacuate British and American personnel. The Russians allowed them to take some of the sick and wounded and sent some of the lorries back empty. The next day, the Americans returned, but this time the Russians turned them all back and fired shots over their heads. We were now prisoners of the Russians, and the word "hostage" began to be heard.

On 7th May 1945, my friend George met Italian prisoners who had arrived in camp from working on farms. They told him that an American lorry was in a small wood six kilometres to the west; he also knew where there was a small hole in the perimeter fence. He was really upset at the way the situation had developed and he said “Let's escape.” I agreed, and we quickly gathered our few belongings. The Italian prisoners had returned to camp on bicycles and we managed to persuade them to let us have the cycles as they were staying where they were. We reached the gap in the perimeter fence without being perceived by the Russians. We had some difficulty in getting the cycles and ourselves through the gap in the barbed wire, but when we did, we emerged on a road that ran down west of the camp and we began cycling.

It was now about 1pm and as we approached the first Russian guard, we decided to pedal slowly and appear it was quite a normal situation. We waved to the guard as we passed and he waved back. At this, our confidence rose! We proceeded on until we encountered a T34 tank with the crew sitting on top manning a machine gun. We passed without incident and shortly afterwards took a road heading west. About six kilometres along this road, we were approaching a small wood. An American officer stopped us and said “American or British?” Getting a positive answer, he stated “You guys wanna go home?” He indicated to the lorry in the wood on which three Frenchmen were standing. Pointing to them he said “Kick their ass off the truck, they ain't coming. My orders were British and American only.” Much to the Frenchmens' annoyance, we complied with his wishes. It may have been assumed at this point, we were now on our way to liberation - not so!!

At the very moment we were ready to move off on the American truck, a Russian Scout Car arrived on the scene with two very angry Russian officers, and ordered us back to Stalag 3A camp. As the American truck made its way very slowly back towards the camp, prisoners were climbing out of ditches, from behind trees and hedges, and we pulled them on to the truck. We were almost within sight of the camp when the American officer got out, had a look around, and said to the driver “Turn around, my orders were to get a load and to get them out.”

The Russians had imposed a curfew of 8pm at the bridgehead crossing on the Elbe. We had a very memorable and exciting journey through the war-torn countryside, and reached the pontoon bridge crossing at 7.30 pm. A Russian officer stopped the American truck and started an inspection, then would not allow it to cross the pontoon bridge. After much Russian-American arguing, about 7.45 pm he allowed us to cross. Everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief, the enormous tension which had built up was suddenly relieved. We received a great welcome from American soldiers who gave us chocolate bars and cigarettes. We were taken to Schonebeck and installed in the slave labour quarters of an aircraft factory. The slave labourers had moved into the SS quarters. An unforgettable moment arrived when an American soldier came into our quarters and brandishing a radio said “Listen to this guys.” It was Churchill's famous broadcast saying the war in Europe was over, tomorrow May 8th will be VE DAY!

Although we suspected at the time there was an element of truth in the rumour we were about to be held as hostages by the Russians, many years later I discovered some documentary evidence. An extract from "Victims of Yalta" by Nikolai Tolstoy (1977) reads:- “A Russian broadcast stated that British and American prisoners in Luckenwalde Stalag 3A were being held as hostages because the Allies were unjustly attempting to retain Russian soldiers captured in Normandy fighting for the Germans. A month was to pass before the Russians allowed the prisoners who remained in Luckenwalde to be repatriated.”

Footnote: A website, www.stalag 3A prisoners of war WW2 is a comprehensive, informative website dedicated to the thousands who were incarcerated in this infamous Nazi POW camp, to those who survived and to those who perished. Click here to visit the website.

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