In late April, 1945 as the
Europe was nearing its end, the Russians were approaching from
the east and the British and Americans from the West in a race to get
to Hitler's headquarters in Berlin. Stalag Luft I was north of
Berlin, so it was unsure at first which of the Allied fronts would
reach them first. As the reports came in and the fighting got
closer and closer to Barth, they soon realized that the Russians would
be the ones liberating them. They soon began to hear the heavy
cannon fire sounds of the Russian artillery getting closer and closer
At night the POWs would lay
their darkened barracks and there would be shouts of "Come On
Joe" (for Joseph Stalin - the Russian leader) coming from all over the
camp. At this time it became apparent to the German
Commandant and the guards at Stalag Luft I that the Russians were
at their doorstep and they must make a move. So they approached the
Senior Allied POW Officer of the camp, Col. Hub Zemke, and told
him to prepare his fellow prisoners to march in an effort to escape the
approaching Russians. Col. Zemke refused to do so.
He informed the Commandant
even though there were over 200 of them with guns, that there were
9,000 POWs and they were prepared to fight rather than march. He
told the commandant that he realized this may cause high losses among
the POWs but ultimately they would overcome the Germans and with the
Russian allies so close he knew this was an acceptable risk.
The German command evidently realized that the end of Germany was near and so he accepted this decision by Col. Zemke. The German command then informed Col. Zemke that he and the guards would be leaving the camp at midnight that night (April 30, 1945). Col. Zemke had made plans in case such a scenario arose to take over the camp, as it was evident to him that as Senior Allied Officer he would be responsible for of the safe return of the POWs to Allied control. He had already organized a group of hand selected men which he called the "Field Force" to help him keep the camp in order until they were all safely back in Allied hands.
So when the POWs at Stalag
awoke on May 1, 1945 they looked around and noticed that all the
Germans were gone and now there were POWs with armbands that said "FF"
manning the guard towers. Col. Zemke explained that the POWs
could not just start leaving the camp on their own, as there was a war
going on all around them and they could be shot. He felt it best
to keep the camp secure in an effort to protect the POWs. (You
can imagine not many of the POWs liked this idea, they were tired of
being imprisoned behind barbed wire!)
Col. Zemke sent a scouting party out to meet the approaching Russians to inform them that there was a POW camp of Allies located in the area, so the Russians would not be shelling them! Later in the day the Russian commander entered Stalag Luft I and meet with Col. Zemke and the British Senior Officer. The Russian commander did not like the idea of the Allied POWs still being behind barbed wire, so he ordered that Col. Zemke have the fences torn down. Zemke refused at first, but was later convinced (some say by force, with a gun) to tear down the fences. The POWs enthusiastically tore them down. Many POWs then left camp and went into Barth and the surrounding areas. Some of them (approximately 700) took off on their own to make their way to the approaching British lines (my Dad being one of those!). In the ensuing confusion of a war still in progress all around them some of the POWs were accidentally killed.It was the 2nd White Russian Front of the Red Army that entered Barth on May 1, 1945 and liberated the prisoners of war at Stalag Luft I. After the fences were down the Russians then learning of the meager food supply the POWs had been existing on soon rounded up several hundred cows and herded them into the camp for the hungry POWs to slaughter and eat. This they did immediately. At night they entertained the POWs with their "USO" type variety show that traveled with them. There was much joy and celebration among the newly freed POWs and the Russian soldiers.
The tensions were building between Russia and the Allies and the fate of the POWs was uncertain until the 8th Air Force flew into Barth and rescued the POWs in a massive airlift called "Operation Revival". The Russians had liberated the camp on May 1 and on May 12,13 & 14, 1945 approximately 9,000 prisoners of war at Stalag Luft I were flown out of Barth, Germany and back into Allied control. Royal Air Force POWs were flown back to England and the American POWs were flown to Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre, France, where they were processed and waited for a liberty ship to return to the states.