Life in German POW camps during the early and middle parts of the war ranged from very difficult to tolerable. POWs in German hands had a much more difficult time, however, at the end of the war. With the German armies in full retreat on all fronts, Germany's POW system began to break down. The Germans forced POWs on the borders of Germany's shrinking European empire (especially on the Eastern Front) to march into camps located in Germany proper. These forced migrations became known as the death marches. In the east, POWs joined the thousands of refugees moving westwards to escape the advancing Red Army. En route, POWs endured tremendous hardships including the lack of food and proper clothing and the harsh Eastern European winter. The conditions were so harsh that Pilot Officer Alden Magnus seriously questioned whether he would make it home: "It's forty below zero, and you could hardly walk and they forced you. You didn't care whether you got back or not. It was so darn cold, and you didn't have the proper clothing. Your feet hurt. Morale was very low. Guys would drop out, and they didn't care if the Germans shot them or not." (1)
In addition to enduring cold weather and low morale, POWs were also without adequate supplies of food. They often went days eating only snow that they found on the roadsides. Often times, they scavenged for leeks, turnips, and potatoes in the frozen ground. In many instances, these proved to be the only substantial sources of food available to them.
Soldiers also suffered from dysentery and other illnesses for which medicine was not made available. Most POWs arrived at their destination within Germany in a seriously depleted physical state. Thankfully, the end of the war was close at hand. Only at the war's end were liberated POWs finally afforded proper food and medical supplies. For many POWs on the Eastern Front, the forced marches were a truly horrific culmination to the war.
- 1. Daniel G. Dancocks, In Enemy Hands: Canadian Prisoners of War, 1939-45 (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983), p. 188.