Without fanfare or freedom, 1945 arrived. For the first time since his capture, Roger (Teillet) began to lose hope and when the beginning of the end did come, he had no premonition.
One day in January, Stalag inmates were assembled outside the camp. No one told them why. Roger looked for trucks and, seeing none, decided they weren’t about to be moved. When someone whispered they were going to be shot, no one knew otherwise.
Then, with only what each could carry — including cooking utensils — the Germans herded the prisoners westward. Even then, no one told them where they were going.
Roger said: “We left on an enforced Death March. After a while, we found out that the Russians were closing in from the east so that’s why we were going in a westerly direction. It was hard walking because there was quite a bit of snow.”
The men plodded on through freezing rain and snow, through roads with deep ruts gouged out by tanks and trucks, ruts filled with water encrusted with ice which shattered beneath their feet. Soon, their wet feet began to freeze. Still, they marched for more than a day — 36 hours — their guards ever vigilant.
When they finally rested, all were limping and desperately hungry. They slept for the first time since leaving the camp, in farm outbuildings. Some found hay to lie in. Roger wasn’t among these fortunate few.
Upon reaching the city of Spemburg, they boarded livestock trucks, then spent two full days without room even to move let alone lie down or sit. They’d had but one meal since leaving Sagan — thin barley soup. After more than 36 hours with nothing to drink, each prisoner was allowed one cupful of water drained from the trucks’ engines. Greedily, they gulped this vile liquid down.
They again set out on foot. They trudged on all day, every day, sometimes spending nights in abandoned army barracks or already vacated prison camps. He said, “We approached one camp one evening where there was a typhoid fever outbreak and we didn’t want to spend the night there.”
So they negotiated with their guards. “We gave our word of honour that if we could stay outside the camp, we wouldn’t try to escape. They agreed. We kept our word.”
On and on these sorry specimens struggled, but starvation, inclement weather, and fatigue exacted an awful toll. Many marchers died. Some, who may not have finally died, collapsed on the road and were left where they fell. Some managed to escape. A few were likely shot. Most became ill. Injuries untreated through all the years of incarceration, were now aggravated.
Roger’s neck injury bothered him intensely. “But,” he said, “there wasn’t anything I could do about that.”
He said the weather, frozen feet, enforced trek, and terrible road conditions made every step agonizing. He wanted to curl up and just wait until all the troubles went away. But, given his nature, his one choice was to struggle on.
They continued westward until the British 8th Army began its advance. Then, the prisoners were turned around and marched back toward the east. Roger wondered if, like Sisyphus of Greek myth who toiled ceaselessly to roll a stone to a mountaintop, the prisoners would be doomed to walk forever without reaching anywhere.
Days ran into nights. Nights ran into days. Roger stopped noticing his surroundings, stopped reacting to cold and wet and hunger, stopped functioning in real time. He said they all just plodded onward like lost souls.
Near Bremen, they found an abandoned camp where they rested for a few days. Roger thought the Germans probably intended to stay longer but the British, having crossed the Rhine, were headed their way.
The walk resumed, this time toward the north. And now, at last, they encountered good weather as well as farms where they might trade their treasured hoard of Red Cross coffee for eggs and bread. Also, they stole potatoes from fields they passed.
They’d been marching for four months when suddenly, with no warning, it was all over.
The long ordeal had ended.
In the vicinity of Lübeck (Luebeck), they met British forces.
Roger remembered: “On May 5, we were liberated. It was almost an anticlimax. It came about so easily. We just looked up and saw a jeep with a British colonel and sergeant. On the other side of the jeep, we could see German troops approaching. They were approaching to surrender. They marched up, deposited their weapons, and marched off — in an orderly way, as always.”
Despite exhaustion, pain, and near-starvation, the surrender etched itself so graphically on Roger’s mind that 55 years afterward, he could see every detail as if he were still watching it happen.
He said: “The day we were liberated, I couldn’t help being struck by the similarity between ourselves and our German guards. The whole thing was like some tableau that I was watching. There was the jeep with the two Allied officers, and there we were on one side of the jeep with the guards on the other side facing us. I looked at our guards and I looked around at ourselves, and I saw no difference. They’d been on the same short rations as we and they were just as gaunt and pathetic looking. The contrast struck me hard. The English looked so healthy and so well-fed in comparison.
Upon release, Roger weighed 127 pounds. His height was five feet nine-and-one-half inches. He’d weighed 168 pounds when captured. Still, he maintained that the starvation diet had not been intentional cruelty. Prisoners had been told the food they got was the same as the Germans themselves received. Roger never doubted this. He said the diet during the Death March was poorer than the food in camp, but added that there simply was no food to be found. He believed the general German population was also hungry. He added that both prisoners and keepers resembled famine victims.
After the prisoners were turned over, a convoy of British trucks arrived. The weary walkers climbed aboard and were driven directly to an airfield where they entered small planes for transport to Brussels.
No one waved farewell to Germany.
In Brussels, Roger said: “We were let loose on the town. But we were dirty and tired and we had no money, so we couldn’t whoop it up. Besides, we still couldn’t take it all in. The next morning, we were given some rations, marched to an airfield and loaded onto a Lancaster and then were flown to England — to Wings, an airfield just north of London. We were trucked to London from there.”
London wasn’t easy to get to. It was, after all, May 8, 1945, the day officially known as V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day.
In London, they were allowed the freedom of the city. He said: “We were still dirty and tired. We got a 10-shilling bill each so, like guys on leave everywhere, we pooled our money and bought beer.”
Still, London was a sight to remember. Mobs of jubilant celebrating people thronged the narrow streets. Strangers hugged and kissed other strangers. Church bells pealed for the first time in years. Laughing, singing, dancing, and weeping, the English at last let down the famous stiff upper lip.
“The next morning,” he said, “we were taken by train to Bournemouth. Before we ever got to England, telegrams had been sent to our families and our discharges were already in effect. It was that easy — no red tape at all.”
It was in Bournemouth that the tired, dirty, and still somewhat confused men were finally able to bathe, and it was in Bournemouth that new uniforms were issued.