RAF Warrant Officer Joseph Fusniak, BEM
Compiled by Richard Fusniak © 2003
It was springtime. I was beside a fast flowing river, and the sun was
shining warmly on the lush green bank. The daffodils were
blooming, I could see a Church in the distance and hear bells ringing.
People were rejoicing and cheering - the six-year war had ended… and then
I woke up with a jolt! It was just before Christmas 1944 and I crawled out of my top
bunk bed in Hut 16b, Stalag 344 PoW camp at Lamsdorf ( formerly know as Stalag VIII-B). Yet another miserable day to
get through, after being held captive for 3 dreadful weary years.
For one of those years all RAF and senior NCOs were hand-shackled on Hitler's orders as
a reprisal for the Dieppe raid, in which several Nazi troops had been shot during the fighting on the
I staggered bleary-eyed from my wood-slatted bunk bed, where I was accustomed to
sleeping with no mattress and missing planks (taken for use as support struts in
escape tunnels), puzzled by the vividness and intensity of my “prophetic“ dream.
I had to share this with someone and sought out my best friends R.S.M. Dick Leggett and W/O Frank Harlow,
both from the British Expeditionary Force and Royal Norfolk Regiment.
They scoffed at my story and bet me that this would never materialise.
They lost, and both presented me with my winnings on my wedding day -- 30 June 1945.
Five quid in those days was equivalent to a week's wages -- but my circumstances
would take a sinister turn for the worse before Liberation Day.
There was tension in Stalag 344. Rumours were circulating that the Russians were closing in; we were advised to tramp around the camp regularly and to get used to walking in case an evacuation was pending. A few days later we heard the distant rumble of artillery, causing us much anxiety and alarm. We had to wait for Red Cross parcels to be unloaded from a nearby railway station before they were distributed around the camp. I was issued with a complete Canadian Red Cross food parcel and collected anything I could wear or carry: two sets of everything; underwear and woollen socks. I still had my thick RAF overcoat intact, but discarded an old worn-out pair of RAF shoes, as I had managed to acquire a pair of American Army boots for 200 cigarettes at the POW camp stores. I also took a rubber 'Lilo' mattress my fiancée had sent me, which turned out to be a lifesaver. I grabbed a thin tatty blanket and stuffed a handful of cigarettes and a few other minor items into my coat pocket. Everything else was left behind, as it was impossible to carry more than a few essential items in a small haversack.
I was in the first evacuation column consisting of 4,000 PoWs and we set off shortly before dark on 2 February 1945. This was not my first time passing out through the camp gates. I reflected on two previous occasions when I had swapped identity with army colleagues in coal mine parties and managed to escape - but not for long. I was caught, beaten up at the local police station in Jaworzno and returned to the PoW camp "cooler" where I spent three weeks cut off from all contact with the outside world and companions in a dark, dingy wooden box type room equipped with only a bucket for toilet deposits; no bed or mattress. Only one slice of bread was give to me each day with a cup of water barely sufficient to stop myself dehydrating. Hitler had ordered that further escape attempts would result in prisoners being shot after there was a mass escape attempt at Stalag Luft III. A third escape attempt for me was therefore totally out of the question!
Once past the Stalag camp gates, marked by a defiantly displayed Nazi flag beside a lookout tower, I became aware of the ground crunching under my feet as a bitterly cold frost set in with temperatures dropping somewhere between -10 to -20 degrees Centigrade. After a few miles tiredness rapidly overcame me. One unfortunate prisoner had no option but to dump a sack-full of cigarettes, which he had unwisely taken along with him. Now and then we halted for a few minutes and after 9 hours or more - well after midnight - we eventually reached a village with barns where I collapsed and crashed out for the night, sleeping in hay amongst hundreds of others. No food, lights or fires were allowed and I was physically and mentally exhausted, having covered 18-25 miles in sub-zero temperatures. Some prisoners were desperate to relieve themselves and a few unlucky individuals with no room to move were urinated on in the pitch darkness from those on the top stacks of hay.
At daybreak we assembled for our second day to retreat from the advancing line of Russian artillery. People were dreadfully thirsty and sucked snow. A German NCO was sent ahead on a bicycle to arrange with the village "Burgomeister" about our intended arrival that evening and to scrounge any food that might be available, e.g. some potatoes and hot water to make weak tea. Hot water alone was always welcome as an alternative to cold when we ran out of tea. However, there were seldom facilities to boil water or even cook food except on rare occasions. A slice of bread or sausage would have to last three days. Local villagers were very poor and often were short of food themselves.
A second column of PoWs apparently set off from Stalag 344 the following day. Only the disabled, those unable to walk, and some German staff and guards were left behind and later transferred by train to southern Germany. I later heard that 8,000 Russian PoWs from Stalag VIII-F (located a few miles away from Stalag 344) were marched shortly after I left but were unfortunately strafed by Russian fighter planes resulting in many men killed.
On the march I kept my head bent towards the ground. All I could think of was a loaf of bread or a meal and a hot jug of milk. That kept me going, but the starvation to follow must have shrunk my stomach to the size of a golf ball over the three-month duration of the march. One man was so desperate that he took food from a parcel under a fellow POW. When the others found out, they threatened to kill him and he ran away in fear. I could hear his screams as he ran across a field, trying to dodge bullets from the merciless escort guards. Whether or not he was killed, I never knew.
Many PoWs had blisters on the soles and toes of their feet that froze. In fact I found it impossible to take the shoes off my crippled feet and don't actually remember removing them except just once in three months. Nor did I change my clothes so I must have stunk to high heaven like everyone else. Lice became an irritating nuisance and impossible to locate due to this restriction, but occasionally I found some of these 3mm long white bloodsuckers, which I crunched between my fingernails. I reckon I became infested while sleeping in a disused brick factory that we shared one night with some Russian PoWs.
Many of us were becoming ill and we were crammed into an empty schoolroom one night and slept on the bare floor. I woke up one morning and prodded my RAF friend. "Hey, John", I said. "We have to get going now". He didn't move; his eyes were wide open and transfixed - cold and dead. Turning to arouse my other companion on the other side of me, I was startled to find he too had died during the night. I got up only to find a third fellow not too far away had also passed away. I found a tiny scrap of bread in his rucksack but could not touch it, let alone eat the rancid lump of horsemeat sausage - the decaying smell was putrid. All of a sudden I felt very weak and vulnerable. Would I survive this seemingly pointless, starving existence with endless days of tramping? When and how would it end?
Those who couldn't keep up with the main column were either left behind at the risk of being shot, or alternativley they hitched a lift on a horse and cart hired from a local farmer and paid for with whatever could be offered, i.e. cigarettes, blankets, watches, food, spare clothing, etc.
A Catholic Jesuit priest named John Berry helped ailing POW's. He was like a guardian angel, and was allowed to invite POW’s to go along with him without harassment from the guards. We once went to an RAF comrade's funeral at which a Polish family was present. They gave me a welcome meal and a few items of food, which I managed to eat during my gruelling journey. I kept contact with John after the war and I was dismayed to learn some years later that he had drowned trying to save someone in the sea.
Sometimes prisoners tried to grab crops from piles between the roadside and adjacent fields. Many were badly beaten with rifle butts by the guards but some were lucky enough to steal something, usually swedes, sugar beet, or mangolds. Little wonder that many fell ill with dysentery. I remember one chap badly suffering from dehydration, with diarrhoea and faeces dribbling down his legs, and with no means for him to clean himself. It was a heart-rending sight.
People rushed to a roadside ditch with hands cupped to catch water trickling down from a hillside. They were beaten on their backs by guards who feared that they might escape. An old German lady was kind enough to bring a bucket of fresh water from her house as we passed by, but as I was about to quench my thirst a revolting guard kicked the bucket, sending it flying in the air. Extremely disgusted at his repulsive behaviour I muttered quietly under my breath to myself, "Schweinehund" (Swine).
Another bad-tempered guard shot a yapping dog right in front of my eyes. Some villagers were less accommodating and came out when they spotted our blue RAF uniforms. They would throw volleys of bricks and stones while screaming at the tops of their voices, "Farfluhte terror fliegers". ("F**king terror airmen", or words to that effect). Dead pigs, horses and sacks of corn were spread all over the place. Apparently the RAF had carried out a successful bombing raid on the town the day before. I was terrified, but amazed that the line of guards actually protected us from harm on that occasion.
There was a doctor from our column - the only one - who looked after our welfare but he carried no anaesthetics; only a basic medical kit and instruments. An emergency operation was needed on a POW’s eye and all that was available was a sharp sawing needle. I helped others to hold down the patient and apparently the operation was a success. More and more people became sick along the route - dysentery, pleurisy, pneumonia, frostbite, blisters and exhaustion were common. Eventually I dropped out of the main column with severe excruciating internal pains and joined the lagging sick parade of some 30 people. Little did I know at the time but I had gallstones that were only diagnosed several years later requiring an emergency operation.
Eventually our sick unit reached the Hartz Mountain range and we passed through it on a horse and cart loaded with three large drums of petrol. The SS troops were stubbornly refusing to surrender to the American Army, which by this time had surrounded them. One of the guards became unusually friendly with me, knowing that the war would soon end. I was glad not only to receive extra portions of his bread, but a promise of an egg! In fact it was a bribe with one condition attached - that I should supply a written note, saying that he was a good friendly guard who had treated my POW colleagues and me well during the evacuation. I wrote his requested note in English and handed it to him. He glanced at it and shook my hand with a full beaming smile, delighted by my co-operation. I don't know how he felt when he was eventually captured by liberating troops for what I actually wrote was: "This man was a f**ing bastard and treated me badly."
Soon afterwards I entered a village where three SS tanks were waiting and the fuel drums were unloaded from the wagon on that I was travelling on. I suddenly realized the alarming implications of my ride. The Upper Silesian guards knew there was a risk that fighter planes might attack fuel supplies destined for enemy tanks, so they were using prisoners as human shields. A few minutes later, having walked half a mile down the road there was a terrific explosion from a surprise attack by Typhoon fighter-bombers that had found their targets. I looked back to see a rising cloud of fire and smoke. We escaped being caught up in this raid by a matter of minutes.
The next day we reached a tavern at Ditfurt village and stopped in a barn to rest at the rear of the premises. By now the weather was not so severe and spring had arrived. Shells were falling near the river at night. The guards had seemingly abandoned us but were spotted clustered together along the riverbank through the veiled mist that lingered in the morning. A little later a firing Typhoon plane swooped down and we heard that a horse and a Yugoslavian civilian were shot in the village square. Suddenly an alarming burst of machine gun fire sounded outside the Inn and someone quickly shouted with exhilaration, “The Yanks are here!” We rushed to the barn door to greet a jeep load of GIs, except for one emotionally drained RAF colleague. Alas, he died of shock at the news never to enjoy the freedom of liberation.
I made off into the village and confiscated a few odds and ends from a German supply train a few Kilometres away to help my survival. When I got back later in the day, my knapsack had disappeared; it had my diary in it with all my precious memories and records of the dreadful march. Not only that, I had the names and addresses of the relatives of dead RAF companions and I felt a responsibility to tell them of the unfortunate circumstances of loved ones who had died on the appalling march or in the Stalag camp. After being deloused and well fed by the liberation forces, I was flown back to England within a few days where I made straight to see my fiancée, Jessica, in Wimbledon. She did not recognise me immediately as I had lost many pounds in weight and looked like a thin rake. The war was over and we married the same year, but the Government did not know what to do with the Poles for three years or so. I was kept at an RAF base in Lincolnshire, before finally settling down to normal civilian life.
Normal? What's normal? Those haunting memories are still with me today at the age of 81.