Satts complete the Long March

Earlier this year Servicemen and women Awaiting Trade Training (SATTS) from RAF Halton and their instructors took part in Exercise Long March, marching 63 miles over three days from the POW Camp Stalag Luft III in Poland to Spremberg in Germany.

Ex-POWs Andrew Wiseman and retired Air Commodore Charles Clark joined the group to help answer questions and give the troops a real insight into what happened at Stalag Luft III during the winter of 1944/45, in which the Long March took place.

Exercise Long March is a re-enactment of the first part of the ‘Long March’ POWs had to complete in January 1945. Allied POWs were marched west into Germany due to the Soviet Army advancing from the east and nearing their camp. Around 80,000 allied POWs had to endure the severe weather conditions, with temperatures dropping to -25 °C, making it one of the coldest winters in history. The march was not well planned and many of them didn’t have the right equipment or clothing. Some of the POWs took apart their beds to make sledges to help them drag their belongings through the snow, whilst others had to carry as much as they could. Due to the freezing temperatures and lack of clothing and blankets, a number of them succumbed to hypothermia and didn’t survive, whilst others were malnourished and diseased because of the lack of food and fresh water.

There was a lot of confusion about where they were going and how long they would be walking for as many of the guards only knew that they needed to head west. It was a horrendous ordeal for all, with many losing colleagues, best friends and people who had become like brothers to them.

A very different journey to the trainees and instructors from Halton, who started their journey at Stalag Luft III in Zagan, Poland, with a hot bowl of Polish soup made from horse-meat, eggs, potatoes and herbs.  Several of the troops found this cuisine very strange, as not many of them had eaten horse-meat before, although it was appreciated by all due to it being home-made and most importantly, hot. They spent the night in one of the huts that was erected for the POW camp and began the march early the next morning heading for Luszcyka Barn, Poland. Along the way they stopped at a local school for lunch, and found the people to be very welcoming. Many were very shocked at the state of the derelict barn they were going to be sleeping in that night. It was the same barn that the POWs had stopped at during the Long March; however their experiences of it were very different to today’s trainees. In 1945, due to the vast numbers of POWs, hundreds of them had to sleep outside in severe weather conditions without any extra clothing.

After the first day numerous trainees were suffering from blisters and sore feet and enjoyed being able to sit down and rest their feet at the end of the day. Although, this was short-lived because the troops were up early the next morning to start the second day of marching. Day two, and heading for Bad Muskau Stables just inside the German border, the trainees started to suffer pain in their feet, legs and backs, but they did well to keep each other motivated and morale high.

On the final day the troops headed for Spremberg train station in Germany. This train station is where the allied POWs were put onto trains to complete their journey to western Germany.  Along the way the group passed through villages and towns and were offered gifts of food and drink and met many different local characters. The end of the march was marked by a moving ceremony at Spremberg train station attended by Andrew Wiseman, retired Air Commodore Charles Clark and local residents.  A short service was held for the POWs that did not survive the march, and wreaths of poppies were laid in remembrance of the fallen soldiers of WWI and II.

Everyone who took part in the march felt it was hard work which pushed them to their limits physically and emotionally but felt they had benefited a great amount from completing it with one recruit saying   ‘It was great experience to complete Long March with someone who had experienced it before, I felt I learnt a lot more by actually doing it, going through the experience and hearing how they coped when they completed it in 1945.’