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Long march to freedom

Former POW Andy Wiseman revisits the Sagan camp for the 65th anniversary of the Great Escape
Andy Wiseman revisited the camp on the 65th anniversary of the Great Escape

By Andy Wiseman
Former POW, Stalag Luft III

This week, a group, including relatives of the survivors and young RAF recruits, retrace the 1,000-mile march which followed the evacuation of the Great Escape camp, Stalag Luft III, and which resulted in the death of 200 POWs.

Andy Wiseman, a former POW at the camp and a veteran of the Long March, tells his extraordinary story.

I was born in Berlin in 1923, so that makes me 87. My father was Polish, my mother was American. They were both Jewish, so I'm Jewish too. I went to a German school. I saw the rise of Hitler, experienced my first anti-semitism and we left Germany in 1934 for Poland.

In August 1939 my father decided to send me to England. I volunteered for the Royal Air Force for flying duties, bombed a few targets in Europe and got shot down on 18 April 1944 over France. Bailed out, lost three members of my crew and walked through bits of France for a few days.

There was no point in getting killed at five minutes to midnight
Andy Wiseman

Then I was picked up by the Gestapo and ultimately finished up at the most famous of RAF camps in Germany, Luft III, the scene of the Great Escape.

The Great Escape had taken place about three weeks before I got into the camp. The camp was shocked by the murder of the 50 officers who had escaped and had been caught by the Germans.

Until then, escapes were a game. You escaped, you got caught, you came back, your friends waved and cheered you up. You went into solitary confinement, you came out, you got more cheers and you planned the next escape.

The Germans announced that, from then onwards, all escapees would be shot. And there was a great argument whether one should carry on escaping or not. But gradually the camp went back to normal.

One of the things that was quite good in the camp, we listened to the BBC, unofficially. It was read to each hut once a day, so we knew what was going on.

POWs at Stalag Luft III in 1943
POWs at Stalag Luft III in 1943

We knew that the Russians were approaching, getting nearer, and we argued with the German camp commandant that we wanted to stay in the camp and wait for the Russians to liberate us.

And then came 25 January 1945 when the German camp commandant announced we had two hours to leave the camp. It was one of the coldest nights of the year. Temperatures were between -22 and -25 centigrade. We had no boots, no gloves, no hats: we were dressed in whatever we had.

The experience of the long march varied tremendously. Some people had a very very very tough time, with dysentery, with frostbite with diphtheria. Others had not so bad a time.

I think march is the wrong word, its not the long march anyway, it's the long shuffle.

You just followed into the footsteps of the guy in front of you. You bowed your head because snow was falling, and somebody said, if you bow your head as you walk or shuffle, you'd be less affected by the wind coming at you.

You didn't talk because that was an effort. You concentrated on walking. You concentrated on putting your foot into the footmark in the snow of the person in front of you. You didn't think.

Obviously the most important person on the long march was you. You were also looking after the people who had become the nearest and dearest. So you helped.

You concentrated on putting your foot into the footmark in the snow of the person in front of you
Andy Wiseman

It became more and more difficult. People fainted, Germans threatened to shoot them if they didn't march, so you helped them. You helped them to the best of your ability.

Some German guards were reasonably nice, others were real bastards. Again, it depended.

As the march went on, day after day after day, night after night after night, the column got longer and longer and longer.

You lost some of your friends. You lost all your friends. And when you finished up in a school or a church or a glass factory, you spent some time walking around looking around to see whether there was anyone there you knew.

Sometimes slept in the open, sometimes in churches, sometimes in schools. It was totally disorganised.

German civilian reaction to us differed. There were some villages where people came out with water and bread and we gave them cigarettes. There were villages where people threw stones at us. They were varied and you never knew what going on.

A memorial  to the 50 murdered officers
Not forgotten: A memorial to the 50 murdered officers

The long march brought to the fore qualities that you never knew you had. If somebody had said to me you will go on a long march for days on end at temperatures of minus 25, I'd have said, "You're mad, I'm not going to do it."

When it came to it, you did it, because the alternative was death. And there was really no point in getting killed at five minutes to midnight.

My group were taken south of Berlin and there we were liberated by the Russians in April before Berlin had fallen. And there I had the time of my life because I think I was the only RAF officer who spoke Russian, so I became tremendously important. I argued with Soviet generals, spoke to Soviet officers. I was fully occupied.

The Russians kept us there for a month. Then we were taken by lorries to Torgau and from there to Brussels and flown from there in Lancasters to Britain.

I came back to England in May 45, I married within a few weeks. I had a fiancé that I refused to marry during the war because I thought I wouldn't survive it.

I joined the BBC fairly soon afterwards, which having been aircrew and having been prisoner of war helped no end, vis-à-vis the administrators who hadn't had the experience.

What the long march taught me, and I go on long marches with current RAF people, is that cometh the hour cometh the man. There is no such thing "I can't do it" there is no such thing "its impossible".

Have a go and you'd be amazed what you can do. If you see a barrier, don't turn around and pretend it isn't there, you've got to get over it or under it, there's no other way of living.

Radio 4's A History of the World site features a a handmade compass used in the Great Escape.

And you can learn more about the RAF's retracing of the Long March at www.raf.mod.uk/longmarch.

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