Most of us know the story of the Bataan Death March. On April 9, 1942, after three months of holding off the Japanese invasion of the island of Luzan (the island where Manila is located), U. S. General Edward King Jr. surrendered the approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese rounded up their prisoners and promptly marched them to a POW camp at San Fernando, 65 miles up the island.
The exact figures are not known, but thousands of prisoners died because of the brutality of their captors. They were starved, beaten, or bayoneted to death.
I read recently of similar marches made by Allied POWs in Europe, in the winter and spring of 1945, but they were more extensive and involved many more miles. Collectively, these forced marches are referred to as the March, the Black Death March, the Death March, the Bread March, or other names. Most survivors just call it “The March”.
There were 257,000 Allied prisoners held in German military prison-of-war camps throughout Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other occupied lands. Between January and April, 1945, over 80,000 of these POWs were forced to march from camps in Eastern Europe to camps in the west.
The POWs traveled in groups of 250 to 300 men and not all groups followed the same route. They marched maybe 15 to 25 miles a day – resting at night in factories, churches, barns, or even in the open. Soon, long columns of POWs were wandering over the northern part of Germany with little or nothing in the way of food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. It seems that three major routes were followed, but the longer they marched, the more confusing the situation became. Getting to a destination seemed less important than to just keep marching.
In addition, January and February were among the coldest winter months on record, with blizzards and temperatures as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the month of March had temperatures consistently below freezing. Most of the POWs lacked the basics of cold weather clothing, and given their poor rations and already poor health, the situation was appalling. The men resorted to stealing food along the way, sometimes eating dogs, cats, rats, or vegetation. There were no bathroom facilities, no water except for snow, streams, ponds, and rivers crossed along the way, if they were allowed close to them, and it was rare that any shelters provided protection against the weather.
After being liberated, one survivor said that his four-month journey zig-zagged across Germany, and even circled back to where they had been, covering an estimated 990 miles! More typical were travels of 500-600 miles.
Because of the unsanitary conditions, near starvation diet, and the exposure to the weather, hundreds of POWs died of diseases like dysentery and typhus, exposure like frostbite, gangrene, and literally freezing to death, plus exhaustion and malnutrition, not to mention that stragglers and poor performers were typically taken into the woods and shot.
I can’t figure this out. I’ve read common explanations: that Hitler was moving them to concentration camps to be killed in retaliation for the intense bombing by the Allies, but the fronts kept shifting, changing their destinations; that Hitler wanted to keep the POWs away from the invading Soviets but he didn’t really know what to do with them; that he was keeping them on the move so the POW camps would not look overcrowded when liberated; that the Nazis were planning on negotiating a peace deal using the POWs as bargaining chips, so it was better if they looked like hostages rather than prisoners; or that the Nazis were hoping most of the men would die from exhaustion, malnutrition, or exposure while on the marches so that their deaths could be counted as a natural deaths, as opposed to having been executed - it would make a difference if someone was accused of war crimes.
The more I’ve read the less I can make sense of it all.
I want to make an observation, though.
During this time, there were also attempts to empty the concentration camps on the Eastern Front and move the populations to other camps. Auschwitz, in Poland, had been discovered and liberated by the Russian Army on January 27th, 1945, so the news was getting out about the conditions in the German concentration camps. As the shock and horror was growing, Hitler ordered the evacuation of some of the concentration camps, putting the inmates in railway cars, trucks, or moving by foot. A vast number were murdered along the way (there were several instances where inmates were locked in train cars and left to die on sidings along the way), probably by design.
Secondly, during this time, there were also constant movements by the German Army, typically by train and truck convoy, but increasingly by foot because of the congestion of the railway system and the shrinking geography. Thirdly, because of the expansion of the Soviet front into Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, a huge number of German inhabitants of those countries were trying to escape to the west, trying to reach Germany; the number was maybe in the millions. Fourthly, there were non-German refugees (from liberated German labor camps, for example) that followed the Allied armies as they moved toward the east.
Fifthly, the Allied armies were encountering miles-long lines of surrendering Germany soldiers walking west. The Ninth Army in the north was repeatedly slowed because of having to stop and set up temporary barbed-wire areas to accommodate the flood of soldiers with their hands up. It had become obvious that Hitler was insane, the officers were running away, Germany was losing the war, and the soldiers knew that it was much better to surrender to the Americans or the British than to the Russians.
And let’s not forget all the Allied soldiers that were invading Germany from every direction. By May, there would be a million and a half American soldiers in Germany, not counting the British, the Canadian, the French, and the Soviets.
Yeah, it was crowded. My point?
Every country road, lane, by-way, regular road, highway, railroad track, railyard, every town, village, city center, every place that people could travel was full of people, many of them not speaking the same language. Millions of people, most of them in a state of confusion wandering through a territory that wasn’t that big – it’s only 400 miles from one side of Germany to the other.
Chaos. It must have been utter chaos. And anything to make it even more chaotic would have helped anyone who wanted to disappear into the crowd.
I think that’s what the Nazi commanders wanted. Hitler was going to die; he believed that it was his destiny, so he’s out of the picture. But the other commanders had long been developing escape plans. They needed camouflage to get the hell out of Dodge and hiding themselves in plain sight was the ticket to South America. That meant creating an atmosphere of utter chaos so that individuals could slip out the back door unnoticed.
I’m just making this up, but it doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.